FAA's Certification of the Eclipse EA-500 Very Light Jet

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On September 17, 2008, the Inspector General testified regarding Eclipse Aviation’s EA–500 very light jet (VLJ). VLJs are small aircraft with advanced technologies that cost less than other business jets. Aviation forecasters predict that thousands of VLJs will enter the National Airspace System over the next 2 decades and will be targeted towards private general aviation users and on–demand air taxi operators.

The Inspector General’s testimony was based on the initial results of his office’s investigation into the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) certification of the EA–500; the investigation was initiated after his office received a complaint in March 2007. The Inspector General did not assess the safety of the aircraft itself or examine FAA’s overall certification process for the aircraft manufacturing industry.

The Inspector General stated that FAA allowed Eclipse to use alternate means of compliance to meet design certification requirements despite unresolved design problems identified during testing. Those alternate actions may have contributed to some design problems that are still reported by Eclipse users today. FAA also awarded Eclipse a production certificate despite known deficiencies in its supplier and quality control systems. In addition, Eclipse experienced significant problems replicating its approved design. The Inspector General concluded that FAA’s desire to promote the use of VLJs may have affected its relationship with and oversight of Eclipse as it quickly moved this new aircraft through the certification process.

The Inspector General noted that a significant issue overshadowing FAA’s certification of the EA–500 is the inherent risks associated with a new aircraft utilizing new technology, produced by a new manufacturer, and marketed with a new business model for its use. Because of these factors, FAA was expected to exercise heightened scrutiny in certifying the aircraft. In addition, because the EA–500 has advanced avionics and turbine engine technology typical of large transport aircraft combined with the light weight of smaller, private aircraft, it did not easily fit into FAA’s existing certification framework.

Based on the interim results of the Inspector General’s investigation, he recommended that FAA (1) reassess the propriety of its single–pilot certification for the EA–500, (2) expedite its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to clarify certification requirements for VLJs, (3) evaluate the propriety of allowing new, inexperienced manufacturers to certify their own aircraft for airworthiness prior to design certification, (4) discontinue prioritizing specific manufacturers’ programs in its Performance Plan to avoid the appearance of favoritism or the perception of diminished vigilance in its oversight mission, and (5) implement a “cooling–off” period for its aircraft certification safety inspectors and engineers before allowing them to accept positions with the manufacturers they formerly regulated.