Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Does Boeing's Fire Containing Box Meet the Fed's Mandate?

Who knows if the Federal Aviation Administration will allow Boeing to put its Dreamliners back in the air equipped with a box to contain any pesky fires that may erupt from the plane's two lithium ion batteries. I do know that if the regulators accede to this plan, it will be contrary to the special condition of 2007, that first granted Boeing permission to use this novel aviation power source.

Usually when the FAA issues notice of a proposal, it receives dozens, sometimes hundreds of comments from interested parties. In the case of the lithium ion special condition, FAA spokesman Les Dorr told me, the agency received just one, from the Air Line Pilots Association.

Reading the comment is a bit like reading a recipe backwards, because it also incorporates discussion of emails between the two but the emails themselves are not included. With studious concentration I can figure out this much: The folks at the pointy end of the airplane were concerned from the start about their inability to combat a fire in the - to them - maybe-likely-chance of one erupting in flight

"We are very concerned with a fire erupting in flight, and being able to rapidly extinguish it. The Special Conditions should require that there be a means provided to apply extinguishing agents," ALPA writes in the comment submitted in mid-2007. "ALPA maintains that the petitioner must provide means for extinguishing fires that occur," the comment continues. 

Now here's where it gets interesting. The FAA opts not to accept the ALPA suggestion for fire fighting, because as it explains to ALPA, a fire in any situation is unacceptable. 

Five and one half years later we have fire in a battery followed by the plain spoken analysis of this from the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Curiously, attempts by Boeing to get the Dreamliner back in service do not hew to the presumption that "fire in any situation is unacceptable", it takes a different route, a fancy box that will contain a fire and vent the fumes, according to various news accounts.

With everybody asking the FAA, "when, When, WHEN?" , the agency issued a statement promising, "we won't allow the 787 to return to commercial service until we're confident that any proposed solution has addressed the battery failure risks." 

I leave it to the folks who are smart enough to dissect federal regulations to explain how the FAA can allow a fire containment box within a mandate that the But from the sidelines, I'd bet any attempt by Boeing to return this airplane to service without meeting the special condition just.won'


Cedarglen said...

Thanks for another great post. Your coverage of this issue is exceptional and much appreciated. You're one of few to cut through the fog and focus on the most important issues, those the Boeing (and even the FAA at times) would rather not be mentioned. One biggie is that a fire in this type of battery is extremely difficult, if not impossible to extinguish. Removal or displacement of oxygen is not effective because the reaction GENERATES ITS OWN OXYGEN. Containing the fire is NOT enough - FAA! the old ALPA comment is spot-on, there can be no fire in the first place! Thanks Christine.

Jim Blaszczak said...

I believe your quote from the FAA "we won't allow the 787 to return to commercial service until we're confident that any proposed solution has addressed the battery failure risks." is very reassuring, but I am not sure what it means. What is the threshold for effectively addressing those risks?

I eagerly await the FAA's criteria for evaluating and addressing those risks. I have my opinion on risk assessment.

Unknown said...

Boeing has a lot of experience in the defence industry. They should get some of their boys in the Bomber designing department to design bomb doors under the batteries. At the first sign of a fire, the pilot pulls a lever and the burning battery drops from the plane. Problem sorted if the pilots ditched the correct battery.

ChefNick said...

Invariably they would ditch the wrong battery and that would fall on a NASA day camp, exploding in a massive shower of burning electrolytes and massacring 50 aspiring engineers.

I vote that one of Boeing's engineering team be chained to the battery during flight to watch over it and smother the flames with his parka if necessary.

Furthermore, he should get the kosher chickpea vegetarian meal that was left over after service.

Grumpy said...

Not a joking matter, gents. Do you really know what would happen if you jettisoned a battery from the 787's electrical system?
(I didn't think so.)