Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Of Course It's Unsafe - FAA Grounds the Dream

HERE and 

The Federal Aviation Administration grounded the Dreamliner tonight, pending an investigation into the batteries that power the plane and have so far shown a propensity for erupting in flames. This comes after days of quotes by aviation experts saying that the Dreamliner is "safe".

NTSB examines the JAL E&E bay in Boston
Just how calamitous a failure does an airplane have to experience before it becomes self-evident that something's wrong?

That's not an easy question to answer but I invite anyone with a good argument to challenge me on this; When fire erupts, not once but twice in the electrical heart of an airplane and the source of the flames is unknown, you have a safety problem.

Bjorn Kjos of Norwegian
In today's newspapers, operators of the now suspect Dreamliner used different terms to characterize their faith in the airplane. Qantas is "confident." Bjorn Kjos, of Norwegian and a soon-to-be owner of the Dreamliner calls the recent events "minor." Until tonight's grounding of US carriers (read United) Lot Polish was operating its brand new 787 on a trans Atlantic flights to Chicago as if nothing had happened in Boston or Takamatsu, Japan. Who knows if Lot will fly the 787 tomorrow.

In their own conference rooms it may be an entirely different story. In fact, I'd be willing to bet the airline executives are a lot less stoic and it is not the cracked windshields that are giving them pause. 

The battery from JAL's 787 fire
Make no mistake about it, the issue that needs tough examination here is the battery. The Dreamliner is the only commercial jetliner to use lithium ion batteries. Boeing needed the powerful yet lightweight batteries for the massive energy consumption of the Dreamliner which has even fewer electro mechanical functions than some other fly-by-wire airplanes.

In the mid 2000s, some engineers working on the Dreamliner were concerned about potential failure modes, I've seen one particularly interesting document discussing electrical system weaknesses.  This was given to  me in confidence.

But the warning attached to the batteries produced for the Dreamliner by GS Yuasa of Tokyo and Rosewell, Georgia is right on the web. It reads, "Inappropriate handling or application of the cells can result in reduced cell life and performance, electrolyte leakage, high cell temperatures, and even the possibility of smoke generation and fire.”

Can smart minds working together create a safe way to get all the juice a fancy new airplane needs from a volatile energy source like lithium ion? Probably, yes. Have they? We don't know.

Little weight can be given to the earlier assurances of  the US Transportation Secretary that the Dreamliner is safe. In 1996, then Sect. Federico Pena made a similarly bone-headed endorsement of  Valujet,  an airline which suffered a crash in Miami that killed 110 people.  

"I have flown ValuJet. ValuJet is a safe airline," Pena said. Three weeks later, the airline was grounded for safety issues.  

Yep, LaHood should have known better. It's deja vu all over again. 

HERE and 

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