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Fire burns fuselage of parked Ethiopian 787 at LHR

Updated

The as yet unknown cause of a fire in an Ethiopian 787 parked at London Heathrow airport today and the damage done to a critical part of its plastic fuselage have put Boeing Dreamliners back under scrutiny.

There was no-one on board the jet when the fire was noticed.  It has broken out in a very sensitive area of the jet, either burning right through the crown of fuselage forward of the root of the tail structure housing the vertical stabiliser, or causing serious melting and partial combustion of the visible outer layers of the laminate.

It is less than three months since Ethiopian became the first 787 user to return the high composite airliner to service after it had been grounded in January following fires or meltdown in the heavy duty lithium ion batteries in a parked Japan Airlines 787 at Boston, and in an All Nippon Airways 787 that made an emergency landing and evacuation during a domestic flight.

This close up screen grab from Sky News shows the fire has burned through the skin of the Ethiopian jet, leaving the internal framework visible.

A more general view  is shown here in a BBC News screen grab.

The damaged area coincides closely with the location of a crew rest area in the ceiling of the rear cabin for some 787 operators, but Ethiopian didn’t fit that option to their Dreamliners.

Among the detailed news reports is this mobile app version of the New York Times story, and a ‘Dreamliner 787 catches fire’ report in the Wall Street Journal.

The cause of the fires that lead to the prolonged grounding the Dreamliners earlier this year was never determined, but Boeing successfully lobbied the US safety regulator, the FAA, to allow the jets to resume services with a ‘super fire box’ that isolated the lithium ion batteries, located under the cockpit and under the forward section of ther rear cabin near the trailing edge of the wing.

According to Boeing, these boxes would allow the lithium ion batteries to burn out in complete safety and not contaminate the cabin of the jets with noxious fumes.

However the cause of the fire at London Heathrow airport is unknown.

Nor is the cause known of a technical fault that recently grounded an Ethiopian jet at Beijing Airport, other than that it was repaired in some way prior to continuing service after a delay said to have lasted several days.

No definitive statement has yet been issued by Boeing, Ethiopian, the FAA or its UK counterpart. The Financial Times has reported an Ethiopian Airlines source as saying a problem had been found in the air-conditioning system eight hours earlier and that ‘sparks’ had been observed.  That report has not been verified, and lacks detail.

Even if the cause of the fire is unrelated to the aircraft’s electrical system the repairability of the burn through area in the fuselage will be of strong interest to current and intended 787 operators and safety authorities.

The 787 is of considerable importance to the business plans of Qantas, Jetstar and Air New Zealand, and is planned to be flown before the end of the year to Australia by Air-India, and possibly Qatar Airways, with China Southern recently flagging a service to Auckland by December.

Jetstar’s first 787 is due for delivery in September.

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  • 1
    comet
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    This is the death knell for the Dreamliner.

    Other recent incidents were not serious, such as an unscheduled landing due to engine trouble in the US.

    However, this is yet another serious fire. The public will have no appetite or forgiveness for another fire on a Dreamliner, whatever the cause.

    This also casts a shadow over future stretched versions of the Dreamliner, because they all have the same inherent design flaw. The 787-10 has exactly the same high-energy electric architecture that requires huge amounts of lithium to run.

    The 787 is now the DC-10 of aviation. An airliner that got so much bad publicity that the public does not want to fly on it.

  • 2
    Mike Bohnet
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    “This is the death knell for the Dreamliner.”

    “The 787-10 has exactly the same high-energy electric architecture that requires huge amounts of lithium to run.”

    “The 787 is now the DC-10 of aviation. An airliner that got so much bad publicity that the public does not want to fly on it.”

    I think I’ll wait until some actual facts come to light before making sweeping pronouncements about the cause of the fire or pass final judgement on the 787 program.

  • 3
    comet
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    We’re talking about public perception. Dreamliner + Fire = Shocking PR.

    The British pilot union, Balpa, said, “All parties in the industry need a full and transparent explanation.” No doubt that refers to the usual fluff statements that come from Boeing and the FAA, who will want to sweep this incident under the carpet.

    No doubt we’ll get another fluffy press conference from Boeing, which will say something like:
    •Fires are impossible on the Dreamliner, therefore it doesn’t matter what the cause was.
    •This one is not a fire. It is just a heat exchange that occurred during a thermal reaction.
    •This is a teething problem that happens to any new airliner.

  • 4
    Theoddkiwi
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    So will you back track if it turns out to be a stupid error due to a caterer sneaking in a quick ciggy and tossing the butt in a rubbish bin?

    Its a very odd place for a fire, with very few electrical systems located in the crown.

  • 5
    Jaeger
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    “So will you back track if it turns out to be a stupid error due to a caterer sneaking in a quick ciggy and tossing the butt in a rubbish bin?”

    A sly ciggy was my first thought too (smoking in bed?)

    I assume Boeing will pull out all stops to prevent this being the first 787 hull-loss; patch it, or replace the whole tail section?

  • 6
    Bear
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear. This latest incident just confirms my belief that the 787 with lots of new, untried technology & processes, is the DH Comet of the modern era. It will probably become a good & safe plane after some time and many revisions & redesigns. The only questions are a) if Boeing has pockets deep enough for long enough to see it to that point, b) if, unlike the Comet, it will happen without great loss of life and c) what the 787 customer airlines will do in the meantime with their business plans in tatters.

    As for myself, I don’t plan on flying on the thing until it has been proven in service for several trouble-free years.

  • 7
    Burke Stephens
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    WOW.

    If it is something like a discarded ciggy or perhaps heating of a systems component (eg airconditioning system), that is even worse… given that a ‘minor’ heating event leads to obvious major repairs.. or potential write-off. Technically, anything can be done but for airlines its ALL about the economics..

    One shudders to think what would have happened IF this event happened whilst in flight.. what would be the structural integrity of the fueslage? THAT is the vital issue..

    Also recall the horrific loss of the Swissair MD 11 due to overheating/shorting in the electrical system in the early era of modern IFE for all pax.. which lead to a fire and loss of control of the aircraft, the biggest danger for a ship at sea or a plane in the air is fire.

    sad to say but to me it seems Boeing and the industry have been very lucky so far. If one of these planes tumbles from the sky, then it really will be all over for 787 given the resultant publicity

  • 8
    patrick kilby
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Might we see Qantas take the 11 787s for Jetstar and then move to take A359s initially, and later some A350-10s, providing there are slots in 2016, but I suspect slots will be found if QF wants them. It does affect the three type policy for the early 2020s (A380, 787s and 737s), but that may have been unrealistic anyway, or maybe 787s and A320s for Jetstar then A380, A350s and 737s for QF.

  • 9
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    If the cause of the fire turns out to be unrelated to the systems of the 787, the important question to be resolved is the consequences of the damage and how it will be repaired.

    This may also have implications or maintenance and repair for the other but differently constructed high composite airliner the Airbus A350.

  • 10
    patrick kilby
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    The A350 is built from composite panels, so it may be easier to replace a panel rather than patch a hole (and leave a weakened area) in single composite baked barrel.

  • 11
    COTOS
    Posted July 13, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    yep skins, stringers and upper frames will probably need replacing as its likely worse on the inside so thats beyond an external patch repair.
    As much as I wish the cause was something else like lightning strike, rouge volcanic hot ash, overlooked powerdown item or even a misplaced iphone melting… somehow i dont think so.
    I just hope PR dont come out with the line they fixed it with a wash of hot soapy water & new spray of WD40.

  • 12
    Theoddkiwi
    Posted July 14, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Would seem very strange for fire if caused by an aircraft component as such. A Circuit breakers primary purpose is to trip and prevent damage to wiring and components just as fuses do the same in your house.
    Other than an Oxygen generator, i still cant see it being anything other and foreign source.

    As far as repairs, would expect it to be much different from an metal jet

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