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The Eclipse 500 Jet: Are Passengers in Danger?

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Washington, DCIt's the kind of stuff that makes you want to never set foot in an aircraft again: allegations that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fast-tracked the approval of the new Eclipse 500 very light jet aircraft despite unresolved design problems, according to testimony presented to Congress this week.

The FAA flatly denies the allegation, and it sets up a war of words between safety advocates, proponents of the new jet and the FAA itself. Passengers on board the Eclipse, meanwhile, would be forgiven for fearing for their safety.

Unsafe JetThe Eclipse 500 light jet was certified for use in 2006, and there are 250 aircraft already in use. A spokesperson for the FAA claims that the agency's certification of the aircraft was appropriate, given that the aircraft met all the required standards. The spokesperson added that the FAA failed to find, or isolate any unsafe condition requiring immediate attention.

Meanwhile, the President and General Manager of the manufacturing division of the Eclipse defended her aircraft as "the most-tested and safest general aviation aircraft," Peg Billson said in prepared testimony obtained on the eve of the congressional hearing. She went on to find fault with the FAA inspectors assigned to certify the aircraft. "We believe that the FAA did not initially have the people with the appropriate knowledge and experience assigned," to the task, she said.

It should be noted that the FAA is actively promoting the Eclipse 500, a new class of small jet, as a potential solution to chronic congestion at large airports, and a rapid transportation alternative for smaller communities that could not support commercial air service.

However, Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel, in prepared testimony for the September 17th hearing, references the findings of an investigation that found the FAA knew about various deficiencies with the aircraft, but certified it anyway amidst an allegation that the FAA had a 'cozy' relationship with the manufacturer.

Inspector General Scovel cited problems with the plane's airspeed and altitude indicator, stall warning system, cockpit display and primary wing flaps. Software was also an issue. One FAA software engineer testified that when he balked at approving the software given his observation that it met only one-third of the required objectives, FAA management sternly questioned him. Another FAA manager, whose job was to oversee engineering compliance of the Eclipse, was removed from the project after raising safety concerns about the jet.

In June, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sent out an urgent recommendation that throttles for the Eclipse immediately be inspected, and emergency procedures developed after an Eclipse in Chicago was forced to make an emergency landing due to a throttle problem.

The plane had only 238 hours in the air before it began developing problems, and there have been four other incidents involving Eclipse aircraft since April of this year. Two of the four sustained minor damage, while a third saw substantial damage. So far there have been no reports of injury, or death to passengers or crew.

In testimony prepared for the Congressional hearing, an FAA manager describes the process of inspecting an Eclipse after manufacture and noted "improperly installed fasteners, misrouted electrical wiring, unsatisfactory safety wire, wrong fasteners being used, inadequate clearances between moving parts, etc."

The manager, Ford Lauer, was just doing his job on behalf of the future safety of the flying public. However, in his prepared testimony obtained by CNN Lauer claimed that his concerns drew objections from the Eclipse manufacturer. "Eclipse management would not hesitate to complain to FAA management when they perceived FAA inspectors were interfering with Eclipse's ability to deliver airplanes."

As the investigation continues, it will be interesting to see if negative publicity succeeds in grounding all 250 planes until alleged deficiencies are corrected, and future models are afforded the kind of scrutiny normally seen before a new plane is certified.

Until then all eyes will be on the sky, and the courts.

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