Monday, April 29, 2013

The 787 flies again

There are many good reasons why flying wasn't done successfully by humans until 1903.  It's really, really hard to do.  And flying didn't become "routine" until the late 1960s.  Folks who talk about how flying used to be so "glamorous" are talking about an era when it was very expensive and quite honestly, hazardous to your health.

When I was in the sixth grade, we had a family friend who worked for Northwest Airlines.  He came to visit and I got instructions from my mother that I wasn't supposed to ask him about airplanes because times were difficult for him.  It seems he was on a team that was investigating why one of their aircraft types was mysteriously crashing.  The problem airplane was the Lockheed L-188 Electra and two of them had broken apart in mid-air.  I ignored my mother's instructions because I was so damn curious—I mean, how often did I get ask a real airplane question to a real airplane expert?  Turns out, the folks at Northwest had NO idea why their Electras were falling apart and were about to ground the whole fleet until they found out.  This experience left quite an impression on me—not only because my folks found out about my curiosity, but because it was the first time I had encountered a really smart adult who didn't have an answer to a serious question.  Eventually, the airlines would just give up on the Electra—this was the era when new and better aircraft were still showing up on a regular basis.

The Electra did not destroy Lockheed as an airplane company.  They are still with us.  But there is an example of a flawed aircraft design bringing down not only a company, but the aircraft industry of a nation.  In 1953, the Brits showed up with the first jet-powered airliner called the de Havilland DH 106 Comet.  It was stunningly good-looking and seemingly gave British aircraft an insurmountable lead.  And it would have except for one small problem—they had a nasty tendency to break apart in midair too.  Eventually they would discover what was causing this problem, but by then the industry had moved past the Comet.  Because even though the fix had been implemented for the catastrophic failures, there were still the maintenance headaches that came from the stunningly bad design decision to locate the engines at the wing root.  British aircraft manufacture would never really recover.  Yes, it had a hand in Concorde—but that was a joint venture with the French who largely made it work.  And there are still British parts in some Airbuses.

Which leads us to Boeing.  This is a company that was the primary beneficiary of the problems at Lockheed and the Brits.  They didn't have these sorts of catastrophes.  Until the Dreamliner.  Turns out neoliberal business practices and aircraft manufacture are not a good mix.  So for the first time in my memory, a new aircraft type from Boeing was grounded.  Yes, the problem was not an airframe failure.  This was a battery problem.  Even so, there are probably red faces in some of the engineering teams.  This is NOT supposed to happen to Boeing.  And I am sure there are folks in the aircraft business who are wondering—if they can get something as simple as a battery pack wrong, should we be worrying about something bigger?

Boeing 787 Dreamliner cleared to fly by US aviation authorities

Dreamliner fleet was grounded by FAA in January after incidents of fire and smoke in the batteries of two planes
Dominic Rushe in New York The Guardian, 19 April 2013

Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is set to fly again, after the US authorities gave the go-ahead Friday to a redesign of the plane's troubled lithium-ion battery system.

The Dreamliner fleet was grounded in January, after incidents of fire and smoke in the batteries of two planes. The global grounding came as just 50 of the planes had been delivered and was the longest of a commercial model in the jet age.

The company has been working on a solution with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). FAA administrator Michael Huerta said: "A team of FAA certification specialists observed rigorous tests we required Boeing to perform and devoted weeks to reviewing detailed analysis of the design changes to reach this decision."

"The FAA set a high bar for our team and our solution," said Boeing's chairman and chief executive, Jim McNerney. "We appreciate the diligence, expertise and professionalism of the FAA's technical team and the leadership of FAA administrator Michael Huerta and secretary of transportation Ray LaHood throughout this process. Our shared commitment with global regulators and our customers to safe, efficient and reliable airplanes has helped make air travel the safest form of transportation in the world today."

The FAA will publish regulations on how to alter the batteries in the US Federal Register next week, allowing Boeing and airlines to proceed with the fixes. The company is believed to have come up with a solution that involves greater separation between the batteries' cells and a venting system for any potentially flammable gases.

Top US safety inspector the National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) and Japanese authorities are still investigating the original causes of the two incidents, one in a plane parked at Boston's Logan airport and the other during flight in Japan.

The plane's grounding marked the first time since 1979 that FAA had banned every plane of a particular type from flying. That ban, on the Douglas DC-10, followed a fatal crash and was lifted within a month.

The 787's problems have been compounded by its hi-tech design. The Dreamliner is the largest passenger plane to make such extensive use of lithium ion batteries, which are lighter and can hold more energy than other types of batteries. The batteries, however, have also proved volatile and caused fires in smaller planes, cars, computers and mobile devices.

Next week the NTSB will hold the second set of hearings this month on lithium-ion batteries and the fire that broke out on the 787 at Logan. The NTSB chairman, Deborah Hersman, has been critical of the "assumptions" regulators used before clearing the ground-breaking use of the battery. The NTSB has also criticised Boeing for making statements "inconsistent with our expectations." more

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