No 787 for a long, long time

The fire and smoke from the event were so intense that firefighters couldn’t see even a few inches in front of themselves when they entered the electronics bay containing the burning battery, the report said. A fire captain on the scene told investigators that the battery was “hissing loudly and liquid was flowing down the sides of the battery case” before it “exploded.”

Those words taken from the interim report of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) into the January 7 JAL 787 fire released March 7, may have killed off Boeing’s chances to have the 787 in the air soon.

The report includes:

  • details on how the maintenance personal discovered the fire 
  • how the firefighters responded and extinguished the fire that smouldered for 99 minutes
  •  findings from the examination of the battery and test results of related components
  • initial reports on the flight recorder data
  • a description of the 787 electrical power system certification plan
  • a list of ongoing and planned investigative activities

But the report does not provide any cause of the fire as the Board cannot yet identify it. A fire that Boeing said in 2008, during its 787 certification process  was impossible. So impossible that a fire suppression system for the 787′s two heavy duty lithium-ion batteries, one under the cockpit and the other under the rear cabin, was deemed by the manufacturer to be unnecessary. The Report seems to suggest that this is a mistake on the part of Boeing. One serious mistake.  

The power conversion technology system that aimed to power the consumer systems onboard the 787 was designed by French company ThalesThey chose Japanese company GS Yuasa’s Li-ion batteries. The Battery charging Unit was built by  US company Securaplane. Each of these companies focussed on potential failures for their parts of the system and assessed what failures could possibly happen and the impact of each failure. According to The Seattle TimesThe NTSB report seems to question the thoroughness of the testing done by Thales and Securaplane.”“None of the Thales documents described a complete life-cycle of tests,” the report states. “No records have been seen that documented the performance of the individual Li-ion battery cells in testing that involved a battery/BCU set or in a complete Model 787 airplane.

Boeing then  reviewed these supplier assessments and took an integrated view for their overall safety assessment of the lithium-ion battery and potential failure.

While the battery fire on the two 787s which experienced it caused no loss of life and no damage to the aeroplanes, the potential for a mid air disaster were worse. Even more terrifying, on the rack above the battery that burned is a smaller lithium-ion battery, that is designed to provide the emergency power for the jet’s flight controls “when no other electrical power is available.” The NTSB Investigators found the this battery’s exterior was“lightly scorched” in the fire and its case had started opening at the corners.

 The NTSB will take the logical next step and hold a Forum in Washington DC in mid-April to explore lithium-ion battery technology and transportation safety. The Forum will be open to the public and broadcast live over the web. 

Following the Forum, will be an investigative hearing to focus on the design and certification of the 787 battery system. That investigative hearing may be very telling.

The NTSB has a webpage dedicated to the 787 investigations. One criticism of the through information provided is that I wish the Board used metric measurements as well as the US system.

In the meantime for seven airlines, their 787 schedules are kaput. Thompson airlines have announced that their May and June Dreamliner flights will not be taking place. If there is a breakthrough after the April Forum and Hearing, the modifications may take three to six months.

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