Sunday, January 20, 2013

View Through the Windows of Troubled Dreamliner

A United 787 at LAX. Photo courtesy J. Blaszczak
View the update HERE

Everybody is in a hurry to find out what happened to two Boeing 787 Dreamliners and whether the world's newest airliner's in flight battery problems  can be easily fixed or if they signify some more serious problem with the design of the airplane that uses such a volatile energy source.  I'm among those impatient for answers, feeling some connection to the Japan Airlines Dreamliner which I had thrill of flying round trip Boston to Tokyo just 4 months ago.

Jim Blaszczak on the Dreamliner
But my eagerness can't match that of James Blaszczak, a United Airlines 787 pilot who was in Houston and ready to fly UA Flight 1489 on Wednesday when he learned of the FAA's action.  

"I was on the flight deck, briefing the flight when the purser came up and said she heard from the agent, the that the FAA had grounded the plane," he told me.  That fight and UA 33 onward to Tokyo would have been Jim's second Pacific crossing in the new plane. 

Jim's a regular reader of Flying Lessons, and a blogger himself, so we communicate frequently. He's a safety buff; a CRM trainer and a bit of a historian on the origin of threat and error management.  He is as familiar with the Dreamliner as any other pilot qualified to fly it, which is to say, he's no expert.  Since transitioning to the 787, he hasn't had any incidents and is one of those who find the airplane dreamy. 

Even so, before boarding the plane, he'd asked questions about the ANA emergency landing in Takamatsu, earlier that day so he would be ready for anything the flight attendants or passengers might want to know. 

View through HUD during 787 Pacific crossing. J. Blaszczak photo
"I got a briefing from the company about what they had done to inspect, to ensure that what happened to ANA would not happen and they went over the systems with me."

But like every other Dreamliner operator that had not suffered an issue with the battery, United was baffled. It needed someone with the 40,000 foot perspective. Unfortunately, the pros with the long view - read the FAA, the DOT and Boeing - were too busy trying to convince an increasingly skeptical public that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Dreamliner that a little shaking out wouldn't fix. What prompted them to come down from that tree, I can't say, but they've done the right thing now. 

JAL's battery post fire. Photo courtesy NTSB
Of course, the NTSB, has been on the case since January 7th, when the first battery incident occurred on the JAL plane in Boston. This morning the safety agency announced that during that event, the APU battery did not exceed its designed limit of 32 volts. Battery cells, circuit boards and wiring from the lithium ion battery that caught fire on the JAL 787 are being examined six ways to Sunday by the NTSB materials laboratory

NTSB investigator Lorenda Ward
The NTSB announcement also shows incremental progress in that it has developed a "test plan" for how its probe will proceed. After the holiday, non volatile memory from the APU battery management unit will  be examined in Arizona and other components have been shipped back to Boeing in Seattle and the battery manufacturer, GS Yuasa in Japan. The announcement does not say, but one may assume this creates a path forward for  investigator Lorenda Ward and her team, who were sent to Takamatsu, Japan late last week to look at smoking battery number 2.

Two years ago, Capt. Blaszczak and I were debating the rules prohibiting the use of personal electronic devices below 10,000 feet and Jim wrapped up his email comment with a statement equally applicable to the Dreamliner situation. "Safety is always paramount in aviation because there are no do-overs," he wrote.  When it comes to aviation safety, decisions "must be made with a default to the conservative choice." 

He had the right idea then. He has the right idea now. 

Here's hoping it won't be too long before the conservative choice and the Dreamliner's return to the sky are on a parallel course. 

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