Thursday, March 28, 2013

Patty Wagstaff Sky High But Down to Earth Air Show Star

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Patty Wagstaff provided photo 
When she wows crowds on the air show circuit, pilot Patty Wagstaff often pulls her airplane nose high. But when it comes to her personal interactions, she is a down-to-earth, everywoman. The 61 year-old, air acrobat's appearance at New York's Wings Club was one of the more glamorous events held by this group of international aviation executives - even without the black tie and spangly dresses that are required for the annual gala in the fall.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

United Prepares for the Resurrection of the 787

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After nine and a half weeks of uncertainty, and with timing appropriate to the Easter season, United Airlines has set the last week of April as the date it anticipates resurrecting the first of its Boeing 787 Dreamliners, then to be equipped with the package of modifications outlined by Boeing in a briefing on March 14th. Employees are being told that the remaining six planes will be modified and begin flying again on a one every seven-to-ten-day schedule, as I reported in today's APEX blog.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Señora's No Shaky Reason For Aviation

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Boston Logan knows how to display airliners
One can't be immersed in aviation without forming all sorts of opinions about its impact.  How one defines the reason for aviation can be roughly categorized.

The Air Transport Action Group tallies it up in a report called Aviation Benefits Beyond the Borders, a study industry groups like International Air Transport Association will surely use to lobby governments to be more like partners and less like adversaries.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Thermal Runaway Like Porn, You Know It When You See It

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In discussing the ongoing problems with two lithium ion batteries on Dreamliners, top engineers at Boeing are taking the Justice Potter Stewart approachDeliberating on whether the American right to free speech also protected obscenity, Judge Stewart said, "hard core pornography is hard to define,"  then he added "but I know it when I see it." 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

787 Battery Box Has Boeing Confined

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Battery from ANA Dreamliner. Photo courtesy JTSB
The materials engineers at Boeing are probably already calculating the size and shape of the new box that will confine the Dreamliner's lithium ion batteries. But it will take a magician to get Boeing out of the box it's presently in. It has an airplane tied up to its wingnuts with a battery technology that may have to go and every way it turns, it finds another corner it cannot navigate.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

B787 Battery Can't Meet 1 In a Billion Standard Experts Say

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The Federal Aviation Administration announced this afternoon that it has approved Boeing's modified plan to fly the Dreamliner again with its lithium ion batteries on board, the "first step in the process to evaluate the 787's return to flight."  The modifications Boeing intends to test  include rearranging the internal battery components, improving the insulation of the cells and ... here's the biggie, drum roll please, using a new housing to contain the results of any battery gone haywire and vent overboard the resulting smoke or fumes 

Notably absent from the FAA and Boeing statements is the F-Word, that being fire. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Ahhh, Boeing, About Those Hours of Battery Testing

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A curious thing emerges from the five hundred plus page report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday, as I reported here for APEX Editors Blog.  Despite all its talk about thoroughly, exhaustively, comprehensively testing the lithium ion batteries used on the Dreamliner, Boeing and its subcontractors failed repeatedly to gauge how separate components of the battery system would work together.
Securaplane, producers of the charger for the 787 battery, tested its product. Thales, which was contracted by Boeing to design and create the battery system, tested some components. But when it came time to put it all together and run tests on the whole shebang, Thales failed to examine what was going on inside the eight individual cells that make up the Dreamliner's battery according to the NTSB report

"Securaplane is not off the hook, Thales is not off the hook," I was told by a source connected to the investigation who asked not to be identified.  Neither, apparently, did Boeing or the Federal Aviation Administration, which is obligated to review - before approving - material submitted by a plane maker seeking certification.

This is one of many curious findings in a volume of reports put out by the safety board. Another verrrrrry interesting section deals with how the battery on the Japan Airlines 787 acted when it started smoking at the gate at Boston's Logan Airport. Domenic Gates of the Seattle Times gives a overview you can read here.

The NTSB's various working groups' have shoveled into a great big pile, a blizzard of documents, calculations, schematics and diagrams from Boeing all predicting how the Dreamliner would act in the "unlikely" case of a battery problem. Now all that paperwork is starting to look like a snow job because what actually happened on January 7th was a heap of a surprise.

For starters there's the fire; the catastrophic circumstance Boeing claimed would not happen more often than one in a billion flight hours but did indeed occur on a plane with 169 flight hours. Then there's the device designed to vent smoke over board that did not work, because the vent is powered by the APU which is powered by, you guessed it, the battery which stopped working sometime after it started smoking. 

Given these errors in assessing what might happen on Boeing's newest airliner, NTSB investigators are said to be taking a look at some of the other issues raised by experts since the ignominious grounding of the fleet on January 16th. 
For example, MIT materials professor Don Sadoway has expressed concern about the placement of the four battery management system circuit panels so close to the battery cells.   "If you have thermal runway, you fry the board," he told me. Certainly photographs distributed by the investigators with the Japan Transport Safety Bureau, indicate Sadoway may be correct. The panels' location inside the box is one of many, many aspects the NTSB is reviewing. 

From small details like panel placement, to the high altitude review of whether the plane got off the ground with a critical safety issue embedded it its power design, a five hundred page report appears to be just the start.   


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Etihad Ad Shows Beautiful People Doing Beautiful Things

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Emirates Training College in Dubai
For a story I wrote for The New York Times in the summer of 2011, I spent a week training to be a flight attendant with Emirates. Every day I walked from my hotel in Dubai to the metro stop and boarded a train to the aviation academy near the airport. I was wearing my student uniform; black pants and a red polo shirt with Emirates emblazoned in gold thread on the chest.