air safety

Feb 6, 2013

Dreamliner runaway battery photo on ANA 787 published

The semantic and technical differences between a fire and the smoking remains of lithium-ion battery located directly under a 787 cockpit are probably going to be lost on air travellers after the release of a disturbing image in Japan.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Definitely not a PR image of a 787 battery in an ANA Dreamliner

While images of charred lithium ion batteries in Boeing 787s may not add anything to the technical discussion of the Dreamliner’s apparently botched design and certification when it comes to things electric, they are a PR and marketing nightmare.

Japan’s aviation safety authority has released the photo at top of page of the state of the battery which was installed under the cockpit of the All Nippon Airways 787 which made an emergency landing during a domestic flight on 16 January, causing the airline, the safety authority, and eventually, America’s FAA,  to ground all Dreamliners pending identification of the failure process and its rectification.

The point about the photo is that it illustrates the unsatisfactory degree to which Boeing management’s overt and covert defence of the safety of its using the most unstable version of a lithium battery known to science in the new airliner departs from the information being circulated by safety authorities.

The Japan Transport Safety Board makes a number of interim points. This battery, unlike one that burst into flames in a Japan Airlines 787 earlier in January, did not actually ignite. It experienced a thermal runaway, as a result of a build up of heat, yet the materials affected did not start burning.

While the semantics might escape the casual observer the safety investigator said:-

“The battery was destroyed in a process called thermal runaway, in which the heat builds up to the point where it becomes uncontrollable.

“But it is still not known what caused the uncontrollable high temperature”.

In simple language, uncontrollable rises in temperature will if uncontrolled most likely result in a fire, including one that can burn through structural composites and alloys, and prove almost uncontrollable by fire fighters,  even on the ground.

It took a Boston airport fire brigade detachment 99 minutes to put out the Japan Airlines fire using equipment unavailable if the airliner was hours away from an emergency landing strip in the high arctic or north Pacific, which that particular flight had only recently traversed before the fire broke out after landing.

The Japan air safety investigator said the wire supposed to ground or discharge static electricity build ups in the battery had been severed meaning it had experienced abnormal levels of current.

However as also confirmed by the early stage of the US incident investigation into the Japan Airlines fire, this large lithium-ion battery had not experienced a voltage surge, and had so far as flight data recordings could tell, had been operating normally immediately before the emergency landing.

Expect the news release in Japan to cause more tension between those who want the 787s to fly again pending a full understanding of the causes and cures in these incidents, and independent safety investigators who will recommend to safety regulators like the FAA a continuation of the grounding.


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7 thoughts on “Dreamliner runaway battery photo on ANA 787 published

  1. comet

    When you look at the (above) photo, imagine what it was like when the thermal runaway was still happening. Spewing smoke, fumes, electrolytes and molten plastic everywhere.

    Now imagine Boeing’s supposed fix: Putting a domed lid on top, with an extra vent for the fumes, and continuing as is. When you look at the photo, also consider Boeing’s statement that the 787 “is safe”.

    I truly believe that the 787 is at risk of becoming a total right-off. Yes, the battery issue will eventually be resolved. But then there’s the looming issue of the poor design and build of the wider electrical system (eg power distribution panels). Then there are the issues with the plastic composite airframe (eg hidden damage / delamination).

    The 787 Dreamliner is the most radical airliner to grace the skies since the Dehavilland Comet in the 1950s. A radical design, combined with poor oversight due to outsourcing, combined with a management with a culture where marketing trumps engineering, is a recipe for disaster.

  2. LongTimeObserver

    Could be as simple as poor electrical bonding in contactors (high current draw, high resistance, quick heat build-up), or could be electrical power system design, logic and/or performance. Be-deviling to all concerned that analysis so far has produced no conclusive answer. Intermittents are the worst.

  3. discus

    The bonding lead being broken being linked as a source of the problem to me sounds like a load of bollocks to use a technical term. Bonding is keep the whole ship at the same potential not to actually provide a ground for any aircraft systems. I am sure the bonding of the 787 is something more complex given the airframe materials but if the battery’s safety depends on a bonding lead that is capable of being severed so easily and so early in the aircraft’s life the mind boggles at the design and approval process.

  4. SBH

    Of course Comet you’re referring to the exquisite DH 106, not the exquisite DH 88?

    The difference between the DH 106 and the 787 is that the problem was the poorly understood physics of metal fatigue rather than (what appears to be)a blythe acceptance that she’ll be right.

    As a perspective check it’s worth noting that only(?) three DH 106s broke up. Five perfectly good aircraft were flown into the ground.

  5. Achmad Osman

    Ouch – the picture paints a sorry sight.

    Not sure why the Japanese Aviation published the picture. The supplier of the battery has to carry some culpability as it is their design. Many experts carry the view that the monolith blocs design lends itself to thermal runaways. The additional stories of multiple battery replacements, as much as one new battery per plane per week is in itself a poor advert for the manufacturer.

  6. fractious


    “if the battery’s safety depends on a bonding lead that is capable of being severed so easily and so early in the aircraft’s life the mind boggles”

    I wondered about that too, but not being remotely familiar with how aircraft internal electrics are organised I shied away from comment. Being more familiar with road vehicles it strikes me that any potentially vital part exposed to being so easily severed is a design fault (assuming that this isn’t a freak occurrence).

  7. keesje

    Comet I think the fly by wire mach 2 Concorde in 1970 was also pretty radical. In fact I think its euro development, certification and operation (together with MRCA) can be seen a the technological industrial craddle of Airbus..

    Back to the Batteries, I think the NTSB and JTSB being open about the issue and publishing pictures is highly political, they make clear they have nothing to hide, are open to everyone having a look/ opinion. Defusing any attempt to make them look subjective, hiding anything, being pressured. The stakes are so high I think it’s a smart PR tactic.

    Looking at the battery, seeing the passenger video of it leaking and smooking, how long did it take the ANA 787 to get on the ground with this one getting out of control? And why was Boeing feeling the initial reaction the FAA overreacted. All part of the wider FAA program review announced a few days before this incident I guess.

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