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Dreamliner woes: Battle of the ‘hints’ begins

When the FAA uses terms like ‘we are feeling no pressure’ and ‘top to bottom review’ when it comes to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner program, a day after Boeing dropped hints about a quick fix, it means things may be about to get uglier.

Updated: Inquiries widen to rest of electricals

From a distance, without the benefit of quiet bars and briefings, those of us trying to follow the intricacies of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner grounding need to listen to changes in terminology and emphasis from the various parties to try and work out where this is going at any particular moment.

It’s a bit like financial analysts hanging on every word that US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke makes concerning the American economy to see if the hand on the lever controlling the currency printing presses is going to shift it to ‘more’ or ‘less’.

However the departing US Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood was more direct in this overnight report by Bloomberg.

La Hood introduced, prominently, the term “top to bottom review” while insisting that the FAA would not lift the Dreamliner grounding until the US regulator “had got it right.” This puts the emphasis back on the FAA audit of what actually happened during the certification process that determined the 787s were safe to fly, rather than the specific NTSB investigations into two battery failure incidents that caused the type’s grounding last month.

This is the opposite signal to the one we referenced a day ago from Boeing that it unofficially, has a ‘fix’, a domed bin into which the li-ion batteries at the current heart of concerns about the 787s would be put, so that they could just go and burn themselves up to their heart’s content while belching toxic fumes through a pipe into the atmosphere so that any such affected flight could just fly on, presumably for hours over the arctic or mid Pacific vastness.

Which brings us to the reality check. If Boeing’s unofficial solution, which is similar in some respects to the one Cessna is in the process of seeking to certify for its Citation corporate jet family, were to be adopted pending the full NTSB determination of the case of two serious battery incidents in 787s last month, will it work for hours and hours before a Dreamliner can land?

The answer is unknown but the question is vital, and clearly, from La Hood’s speech, the right answer has to be given, and proven, before the 787′s fly again.

This will probably get rather intense, and spill out into the open at some stage, soon, as Boeing does everything it can to get the jets delivered and paid for by impatient customer airlines.

Boeing could draw on history for support. The FAA allowed Douglas DC-10s back into the air even though not all of the issues that led to their grounding in 1979 had been fully resolved and fixed when flights resumed, with the FAA dealing with the remaining issues through various advisory or compulsory orders.

However it is no longer 1979. There are different expectations as to what the safe regulation of flight means, and while there are good arguments to be voiced both for and against prescriptive regulation in any field, the overwhelming support seems to be for more effective regulation.

With luck and courage, the 787 grounding could change the way the FAA works, and make the certification procedures and standards for new technology airliners like the Dreamliners both better and more effective.

How costly this proves to the Dreamliner is yet to be determined.

Updated: In the latest reports, the NTSB has engaged a Naval warefare laboratory with more than 40 years experience of lithium-ion battery developments, including when they were not discussed outside of defence circles, and broadened its inquiries to other parts of the electrical architecture of the 787.

A broadening of the scope of the inquiry had been anticipated from the outset of the NTSB involvement.

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  • 1
    LongTimeObserver
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    “With luck and courage, the 787 grounding could change the way the FAA works, and make the certification procedures and standards for new technology airliners like the Dreamliners both better and more effective.”

    Let’s hope, because it’s quite clear that what evolved over the first 2000′s decade is a heavily co-opted system that permitted manufacturers, airlines and MROs to produce far too near to bleeding edge outcomes.

    “How costly this proves to the Dreamliner is yet to be determined.”

    Which should be of no, bupkus, ZERO, concern to FAA.

  • 2
    StickShaker
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    One of the best descriptions I have seen of this entire 787/Li Ion battery fiasco is on Christine Negroni’s blog http://christinenegroni.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/dreamliner-use-of-hazardous-battery.html

    Christine makes an interesting comparison of the current 787 battery scenario to the centre fuel tank on the 747 which exploded on flight TWA800 killing 230 people in 1996.
    Christine emphasises that the location of the 747 centre fuel tank directly over a heat source (pneumatically driven air conditioning packs) often heated fuel vapours above flash point.

    It took 27 years after the introduction of the 747 for this design flaw to eventually cause serious loss of life. Christine suggests that Boeing are making similar mistakes with the 787 batteries 40 years later.

    After reading countless articles and blogs along the 787 batteries along with constant PR spin from Boeing I tend to agree with Christine that Boeing are not looking at the bigger picture.

  • 3
    comet
    Posted February 2, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    It’s getting more serious by the day.

    Ray La Hood’s comments really take it up to another level.

    1. He basically said he doesn’t care how long it takes, as long as it’s done right.

    2. His words “top to bottom” indicate he wants to look at the entire Dreamliner, not just the battery.

    This is really bad for Boeing. It menas longer inquiries that may look at other issues, like the radical composite plastic airframe.

    Boeing is behaving like it is being run by 5-year-olds. Boeing’s solution of putting a domed lid over the burning battery is too bizarre for words.

  • 4
    Kapo
    Posted February 3, 2013 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    It’s was a super shambles up until the first delivery, I don’t think a word exists to describe what it has now become. The one thing amongst the many issues that stick in my mind is the huge own goal with the rollout of the first 787 with plastic fasteners 07/8/7, can there be anything more embarrassing for an engineering company, let alone one of the greatest of alltime.

    Boeing has a gamechanger actually flying around, it’s the 777-300ER, but that was designed in the 90′s when it was an engineering company.

    How costly this proves to the Dreamliner is yet to be determined.

    Yep, they’re really going to have to roll up their sleeves to win a few “hard fought” defense contracts. That’s the way it works in the free market, not like those pesky Europeans that distort the market by relying on State aid. :)

  • 5
    Uwe
    Posted February 3, 2013 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    @Kapo
    Success of the 777 is to a significant part based on early extended ETOPS “out of the box” certification. (That and a very aggressive “sales”campaign preemted Airbus at the time) Something EASA ( resp. the predecessor) is much more held back with and which was probably unavailable to Airbus ( in relation to the FAA ) at the time.

    How far back does the cooption of the FAA reach back in time?
    When did it start to have a distorting influence?

  • 6
    dingus
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    Hi stickshaker chistine is wrong on the TWA center wing did not go bang the cargo door opened as there is red paint on the white uper deck above the cargo door see barry smith@corozon.com Very Intressing reading????

  • 7
    Uwe
    Posted February 4, 2013 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    @dingus
    John Barry alleges that the cargo door blew and not the center tank.
    The proof (paint rubbed off) shows that the cargo door blew open.
    But Barry also gives as reference PanAm Flight 103 where the cargo door seems to have show similar indications.
    Only that flight had an internal bomb explosion to effect the door failure ( and hull too ;-)
    Same for TWA 800 ( center wing box is a nice big fuel air bomb ).
    Mr Barry’s observation may be correct his interpretation definitely not.

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