air safety

Jan 17, 2013

Qantas hopes for a fast Dreamliner fix are fading

What is now coming under scrutiny at the FAA, and worryingly, by the FAA, is whether or not all of the new technologies in the 787 have been appropriately tested and certified.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

The perfectly reasonable Qantas statement yesterday about how the Dreamliner 787 issues would be all over before it took delivery of any for Jetstar is looking shakier with every media leak in the US. It isn't just that the FAA has grounded the 787, but that the problem that caused an emergency landing of an ANA jet in Japan yesterday is now looking fundamentally different in nature to the battery fire that broke out in a Japan Airlines Dreamliner at Boston's Logan airport on 7 January, with the design and integrity of the advanced electrical systems that link to them appearing to be a common factor. Dominic Gates at The Seattle Times has the graphic details in his latest report. But there is more, much more. In its apparent haste to cut corners and 'assist' Boeing the FAA has created a paper trail that will severely embarrass the regulator, and no doubt horrify 787 customers as it gives rise to any notion of a major redesign and recertification program, should that prove necessary. Suppressing that paper trail may prove impossible. One of the first weak points in the FAA case that it has been thorough and tough in in certifying the 787  to the point where it can scare the daylights out of airlines and passengers alike, could prove to be that of whistleblower Michael Leon, who raised grave doubts about the safety of the batteries and associated systems being proposed for the Dreamliners in 2006, the year before Boeing staged a sham roll out of the prototype 787. The Leon case is complex, bitter and notorious, and it seems, unresolved. However the essentials were that while employed by Securaplane, which brought together mission critical battery assemblies for the 787, Leon wrote a critique of the technology that argued it was a safety of flight risk and that substitute battery technology should be used.  A month after that, in November 2006, Securaplane's main buildings were burned to the ground after a battery test went wrong. Leon was among those suffering injuries, some serious, as a result of the blaze.  Early in 2007 after he had already fallen out with Securaplane's management, it moved to force him out of his employment for refusing to ship what he considered an unsafe battery assembly to Boeing for use in the 787, and which malfuctioned once it was installed in a prototype airframe. When your job is to sign something out as safe, and your employer wants you to sign, no matter what, the situation is never going to end well, for the employee, the company, or the customer. References to the Leon case are starting to appear in US reports, and more are inevitable, as investigative reporters grapple with the business phenomenon of managements that will not hear cautionary or contrary voices, even when it is in their interests and those of their shareholders to deal fully with identifiable and quantifiable risks. But caution before panic is always advisable. Its early days. We don't know where the tricky bit of the FAA inquiry, which is into the actual certification process, will lead. The 787 is not just revolutionary in its leveraging of lithium ion battery technology, but the use of powerful on board generators to electrically replace the use of pressurised bleed air from the engines for a range of functions such as cabin air pressurisation and flow. Its most celebrated feature is the use of thin load bearing pressure cycle sensitive cabin cages woven from carbon fibre reinforced plastic tape, glued together with epoxy resins and baked in giant autoclaves or industrial ovens. The weight saving goals set for this technology may not yet have quite been realised on the early 787s, but there is no voice in aero engineering that isn't convinced that as the Dreamliner series matures and lessons are learned, later builds will deliver on the potential of high composite pressure cycle sensitive load bearing components, as compared to the use of monolithic assemblies of carbon fibre found in earlier jet airliners since the early 80s. What is now coming under scrutiny at the FAA, and worryingly, by the FAA, is whether or not all of the new technologies in the 787 have been appropriately tested and certified. The potential for more delays to the Dreamliner doing what it was sold to do are both significant and obvious.  

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7 thoughts on “Qantas hopes for a fast Dreamliner fix are fading

  1. Rufus

    Is this the Dreamliner’s “DC-10 moment”?

  2. patrick kilby

    Qantas’s deferral to 2016 looks wiser and wiser by the day

  3. comet

    Michael Leon was not the only whistle-blower forced out of his job.

    Vince Weldon was one of Boeing’s top aeronautical engineers, until he stood up and said that the 787 was unsafe. Boeing then swiftly fired him. Google Vince Weldon to read his story.

    To redesign the complex electrical systems of the 787 would take a long, long time. To use an alternate battery technology to replace the unstable Lithium Ion may be impractical. Other battery technologies, such as nickel-metal hydride don’t pack as much energy into the same sized battery. Any alternate battery technology would require much larger and heavier units.

  4. R. Ockape

    The issue here is not whether any specific technologies employed in the 787 are safe or not. The real issue is, should any of those technologies prove to be unsafe, why did the certification process employed by the FAA fail to detect those inadequacies? Were those processes employed inadequate or were negative results buried?

    Any inquiry could lead to a complete redesign of certification methodology and oversight. That is serious stuff. This looks more and more like a significant failure of regulatory oversight and, for an organisation with as important a role as the FAA, is completely unacceptable.

  5. Rufus

    It’d surprise me if this all comes down to the propensity of lithium ion batteries to catch fire. Cathay wouldn’t even let me take one in my checked luggage last week – a bit worrying if an entire aircraft is dependent upon them!

  6. Malcolm Street

    comet – not only would NiMH batteries be larger and heavier, they would have a lower cycle life.

  7. discus

    Rufus you are likely correct but the process (as mentioned by R. Ockape) of approval and whether enough rigor was used in signing off on a new and known problematic power source will be interesting.

    Having grounded them. you would not expect them to be approved safe to fly again soon, as getting appropriate changes done and “rigorously tested” any time soon is unlikely surely? With the issue now in flashing lights worldwide who would sign off on any temporary / interim fix?
    These batteries I believe are lighter than more conventional NiCads by about 12 kg and physically smaller too. A retro fit of more conventional power would be a killer blow if it came to that. So much interfacing and redesign and certification to do.

    The only way it’ll fly soon is for them to identify the fault and pin it on a few rogue cells. Again this will take time but seems the only way out right now.

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