Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dreamliners Grounded in Japan


Japanese airlines aren't reassured by the statements of top U.S. aviation officials, especially with another Dreamliner incident reported in Japan. Both ANA and Japan Airlines have temporarily grounded their Boeing 787s. Now the National Transportation Safety Board is sending an investigator to Japan expanding its own probe into Dreamliner safety issues. 

On Wednesday morning, an ANA flight from Yamaguchi in Western Japan took off for Tokyo's Haneda Airport and about 30 minutes later, the pilots reported smoke in the cockpit and made an emergency landing at Takamatsu Airport

News video shows the airplane on the field with doors open and emergency evacuation slides deployed. There were 137 people on board including the crew. Five people were injured and one hospitalized in the evacuation. Japanese media report there was a cockpit indication of a battery problem in addition to smoke. (Jon Ostrower, of the Wall Street Journal photographed the plane on its final proving flight in August 2011.)

The battery from the JAL's Dreamliner fire in Boston. NTSB photo
So far all signs point to another case of battery fire. According to my man in Japan, Takeo Aizawa, the Japanese language newspaper, Sankei is quoting ANA vice president Osamu Shinobe saying,  "this incident comes from the fact that the batteries of the two cases are the same."

Cracked windshields and leaking fuel lines ain't fun, but it's an entirely different safety level when the problem is being generated from an energy source.  This can not be dismissed as ordinary "teething problems" on a new model airliner and that's not just my opinion, Mr. Shinobe told reporters the same thing. Mr. Aizawa's translation paraphrases Mr. Shinobe saying that new airliners experience a period of troubles and adjustments, but this is not one of them.

The Dreamliner uses powerful lithium ion batteries that are prone to overheating unless handled with extreme care.  Further, a former Dreamliner designer explained to me that the coolant used in the power panels can itself become problematic in cases of leaking.

LaHood (left) at Huerta's swearing in last week.
It was a battery fire in a JAL Dreamliner in Boston last week that prompted the big dog and pony show January 11, with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood saying, and I quote, "These planes are safe."

Well maybe they are and maybe they aren't, but considering the nature of the incident in Boston last week and the criticality of the electronics on an airplane that is inherently aerodynamically unstable it was wrong to make an expression of confidence in a plane you've just ordered to undergo a wholesale review from design to production to manufacturing. 

Last week, I suggested that LaHood, Michael Huerta and Boeing's Ray Conner were spooled up to endorse the airplane regardless of its recent troubles. But for the Japanese operators of the Dreamliner who together are operating half of the 787s flying, the spin cycle is over.


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