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Dreamliner Goes Political

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This week's announcement that the Senate aviation subcommittee will hold hearings on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner certification review should remind us of two things. First, the intersection of politics and aviation remains acute, not tangential and, second, a major transport aircraft like the Dreamliner is so stitched into the global economy that it inevitably becomes politicized. It's just a question of when and how much.

While the hearing may offer more heat than light, to coin an unfortunate smoldering battery analogy, I'm curious to see if the subcommittee will dig deeply enough to reveal any details of political or bureaucratic pressure involving the certification of the 787's lithium-ion batteries. The fact that the batteries were certified under special conditions confirms that the FAA had misgivings. Perhaps now we'll find out if Boeing well and truly satisfied those concerns or if the agency was politically pressured to go along with a cert plan it really didn't like. (Not that this could ever happen, of course.)

There's already been a sort of minor pissing match between U.S. investigators and Japanese safety authorities. After the Takamatsu 787 battery incident and emergency landing, Japan's Transport Safety board allowed as how the 787's charging system was overvolting, but the NTSB pointedly said it found no evidence of that in the first battery fire in a JAL Dreamliner in Boston on January 7th. Worth noting is that the lithium-ion batteries are made by a Japanese company, the giant GS Yuasa. Not that the Japanese safety agency would ever consider that in its initial pronouncements. Meanwhile, the Seattle Times reported this week that a company doing testing and development for the Dreamliner's charging system, Securaplane Technologies, experienced a battery fire so intense and resistant to control efforts that it burned down the entire building.

SecTrans Ray LaHood's involvement here is interesting, too. Coming from the Chicago school of politics—well, Peoria—he's normally a careful parser of words. Yet there he was on January 11th saying the 787 was absolutely safe, but the FAA was conducting a special certification review just to make sure. Five days later, the entire Dreamliner fleet was grounded. This made me wonder if his technical staff is serving him well. Was he informed of the potential for additional fires or did it catch DOT by surprise? And if it did surprise them, perhaps the aviation subcommittee might find out what else they don't know or didn't consider, if anything. I always get nervous when someone says, with utter confidence, that something is perfectly safe. Those words come to haunt when looking over the lip of a smoking crater.

Then there are the appearances. In Air Transport World , Karen Walker rightly observed that both LaHood and new FAA chief Michael Huerta stepped right out there when they declared the 787 safe even while announcing the certification review. Wouldn't it have been better, she argues, to keep at least the appearance of independence pending the review? More politics.

If you read over the special conditions for the battery certification, it's possible to conclude that Boeing may have in fact met the requirement for thermal containment. Photographs of the battery boxes for both the Boston and Takamatsu incidents have been made public and both look the same: charred innards, but no evidence of melting or thermal breach, although smoke surely escaped. So maybe the fire wouldn't have spread beyond the battery box. That's cold comfort over the Pacific at 3 a.m. in a smoky cabin, but maybe it beats the alternative.

The Dreamliners remain on the ground so I suspect Boeing and the regulators are feverishly trying to find a solution to get them flying again. The longer it goes, the worse it will be for the program, at least for public relations. And that's just the technical aspect. The politics are just getting started.

Comments (36)

Well, I'm no engineer, and I'm certainly no politician ... but for the Nation that put man on the moon, this is a disgrace.

My 2 cents.

Posted by: Phil Derosier | January 23, 2013 8:54 PM    Report this comment

Hmmm...wonder how much re-design retrofitting an emergency battery ejection systme would entail?

Full of sound & fury, but life will go on, and the Dreamliner will fly.

Posted by: John Wilson | January 23, 2013 10:52 PM    Report this comment

Maybe a step back to known/reliable battery technology would be a quick fix that even the Senate could live with.

Posted by: Joe Sikora | January 23, 2013 11:00 PM    Report this comment

If the FAA spent more of it's time and resources on commercial programs (where safety IS paramount) vs chasing GA guys around the block for no real benefit, maybe they could do a better job of directing their limited resources where it makes the most sense. I saw the aircraft which barely landed in time in Cincinnati, OH back in 1983 and it wasn't pretty. All the much worse in a large composite airplane.

Cessna had to retrofit the jets it produced with the less dangerous lithium iron phosphate (LFP)technology batteries. In this instance, Boeing used the more dangerous standard lithium cobalt oxide (LCO) technology. Conditions of extreme temp or pressure can cause internal thermal runaway which cannot be stopped by external protection circuitry. Once it starts, it's tough to put out and spreads to the neighboring cells. Surely someone knows this? LCO technology is not ready for aviation use.

As you say, Paul, when engineering, economics and politics intersect ... Katie bar the door. Maybe e need a Presidential Executive Order to outlaw those darn things (sic)?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | January 24, 2013 2:38 AM    Report this comment

http://info.a123systems.com/Portals/133376/docs/sds%20information/sds%20english.pdf

I chose the a123 phosphate batteries in my UAV design, they are estimated to be 40 percent heavier (steel cased) than the mylar bag type cells and have huge input and output amperage ratings. they were said to have an offically relaxed transport rating compared to the mylar bag type, the MSDS link is above, which is not clear. I was never quite clear why A123s were not being used more, if perhaps I was missing something, or is it the harsh reality that having the best product does not mean you will have an easy time selling.

Posted by: Francis Gentile | January 24, 2013 5:32 AM    Report this comment

Larry, just to clarify here on the Cessna Citation battery fire. The airplanes had lithium iron nanophosphate from A123. After the fire, the AD required these to be replaced not with another lithium chemistry, but with NiCad or lead-acid. Here's the AD summary:

www.snipurl.com/267mno7

I think that's what you're saying there, but the part about the retrofit wasn't clear.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 24, 2013 6:15 AM    Report this comment

That's a good decision. Senate & House leaders certainly know more about smoke and fumes than any aviation professional could ever hope to learn.

Posted by: Jason Baker | January 24, 2013 6:28 AM    Report this comment

Whew, what a relief! So glad to hear some real experts will be looking into this now!

Posted by: John Peck | January 24, 2013 6:34 AM    Report this comment

I wonder if Boing made political contribtions to the administration. This is usually why they so vigorously support certain industries or companies such as Solyndra.

Posted by: larry maynard | January 24, 2013 6:49 AM    Report this comment

The Senate Subcommittee is nothing but a dog and pony show to extort, via the commercial aviation lobby, funds for re-election. What a farse our federal government continues to make of itself. That the FAA and Boeing as well, have missed some detail point with an aircraft as complex as this, is something which should be expected, and not created feigned surprise and finger pointing. Prepare for the enexpected, and act based upon the best information available if and when that eventuality occurs. Is there something too hard about that?

Posted by: Gary Smrtic | January 24, 2013 7:27 AM    Report this comment

Its misleading to say special conditions mean FAA had concerns. Theres nothing special about special conditions, it only means your design is more modern than the regulations, which isn't uncommon. For example part 23 was just updated to accommodate light jets (like cessna citation) last year. Before that they all (every many) had special conditions. Not because FAA had qualms about light jets, because the rules for cubs and bonanzas don't fit.

Posted by: B Noel | January 24, 2013 7:29 AM    Report this comment

Should say above ... they all (every manufacturer) had special conditions..., not "every many"

Posted by: B Noel | January 24, 2013 7:33 AM    Report this comment

Well, I guess we can all forget about the push to streamline the certification process

Posted by: Richard Montague | January 24, 2013 8:32 AM    Report this comment

Paul the Continental CEO said "LaHood and Huerta do not know the front from the back of an aircraft". Both are career politicians. Now The Senate wants to investigate and FAA will wait to see that outcome....for sure!

Boeing Management outsourced 70% of the most technically advanced aircraft in the world, a big mistake.

Now with all the problems like exploding engines, brake problems, cracking windshields and now.....an Lithium-Ion battery problems....who do they point the fingers at and how the hell is the FAA going to investigate the problems.

Administrator Huerta said "FAA HAS SPENT 200,000 MAN HOURS CERTIFYING THE 787" I sure would like to know what they did?

It's a political mess with every agency and government body standing in line to investigate. What a political BOONDOGGLE!!!....

Oh, did you fellows wonder how Airbus is doing with the A-380? Yes, the aircraft weighs a Million pounds on take off.... and the wings have been cracking??? The FAA is looking the other way on this>

Rich Wyeroski, former FAA Safety Inspector

Posted by: Richard Wyeroski | January 24, 2013 8:34 AM    Report this comment

Wonder if there will be a minor spike in unemployment, after these clowns are done with trying to destroying Boeing?

Posted by: Jason Baker | January 24, 2013 8:41 AM    Report this comment

I enjoy blogs and social commentary like this one and Paul does a good job of moderating the discussion and keeping people on point, but as I read many of the comments on the battery issue of the 787 I had a moment of "irony" come over me. Most of us involved in aviation get peeved when we read or hear commentary on aviation incidents or disasters coming from non-aviation sources. We all know from experience that it takes time for the real experts to do their job and analyse the facts and report the conclusion. I guess I’m asking why we are falling into that trap here. I haven’t read any comments from anyone who has direct technical knowledge on these particular batteries and now we’re adding comments that the FAA might have been politically pressured to certify the batteries. This turns up the dial for conspiracy theorists and just muddies the issue even more.

Posted by: James Kabrajee | January 24, 2013 9:52 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you were correct...I WAS saying that the less dangerous LFP technology batteries in the Citation had to be replace with lead-acid or Ni-cad technology but failed to say it. I didn't do a good job of writing early this AM. My point was that LFP technology batteries (less dangerous than the LCO technology in the 787) had to be replaced in the Citation. Boeing decided to use the more dangerous LCO technology and the FAA went along with it despite knowing of the problems in the Cessna.

So I now wonder if an AD will come out requiring the LCO battery technology in the 787 with NiCad or lead-acid?

And NOW ... reading that the FAA spent 200,000 man-hours on the thing ... what did they do? The more I read about the FAA, the madder I get. They ought to re-assign those Part 23 guys to Part 25 work.

Thanks for clarifying what I intended, Paul.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | January 24, 2013 10:50 AM    Report this comment

The Senate investigation is misguided political theater. Why are they spending time on an investigation when have not passed a budget in 4 years? The technical folks at Boeing and the FAA will find and solve the problem. They don't need a bunch of politicians looking over their shoulders.

There is another bit of irony. The US Federal Government has funded 9 Li-Ion battery plants since 2008 or so, and Government funds have helped finance 26 out of 30 new US battery and component plants. Was there any political pressure to use Li-Ion batteries in the 787?

Posted by: Dana Nickerson | January 24, 2013 11:07 AM    Report this comment

I wonder if the FAA in Seattle (or Everett or wherever) really did know about the issue with the Citation battery. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if what the FAA in Witchita knew or experienced never made its way to the FAA cubicles in Seattle.

Posted by: Clinton Bersuch | January 24, 2013 12:12 PM    Report this comment

Monday morning quarterbacking: It appears that thermal management was perhaps incorrectly applied. Whether there is excessive charge rate, or excessive discharge rate, or both, and perhaps density/geometry issues with the construction of the battery, or a combination, or all the above, this sort of thing should not have happened. Now, aircraft manufacturers want things as small, light, and powerful as possible. Lithium batteries, especially LiPo (Lithium Polymer) batterys have a very high energy density. However, they are very unforgiving of any variance in construction technique, and abusive (over current/over voltage) charging, and over-current discharging. When LiPo batteries are asked to deliver more than they can, they react- the battery swells, dimensional tolerances shrink, internal shorts can occur if the physical design does not allow for this abuse. Once the short occurs, the battery will go into thermal runaway, and can catch fire violently. Look at what happened to LiPo batteries in laptops just a few years ago. That was an issue with improperly constructed battery cells where "cat's whiskers" from raggedly-cut conductive layers were able to bridge from + to - polarities and create a short-circuit path, and the batteries burned-up/ through the laptop bodies. Google the battery fires and see some very interesting photos.

Posted by: S J | January 24, 2013 12:35 PM    Report this comment

Continuing:

From this article, it appears that Boeing anticipated the thermal problems, and built a pretty good battery box to contain the fire. This is probably a tertiary safety implementation. This should not be relied upon by those concerned, however. As most pilots know, you get two mistakes for free, the third mistake breaks planes and/or kills people. Simple mistakes. Eliminate the root causes of the thermal run away issue, and you have a safe aircraft power source. Trouble is, it will cost size and weight- maybe the battery needs to be larger (more capacity so that it can fulfill power demand), and perhaps less dense, or with internal cooling channels, or active liquid-cooling, or both. Again, it's about size, weight, and power, which impacts load carrying capacity, range, duration of flight, etc. Modifications to an existing aircraft is expensive- it will require recertification, at least of the power distribution and charging system to certify the system as safe.

Yuasa makes all manner of batteries for all manner of vehicles. They build a good battery. I suspect they built this battery to specification, as Boeing tends to levy a specification directly to its vendors. I am sure that Yuasa will keep tight lips, as it is their culture to do so- I suspect they will never directly volunteer that their customer demanded the battery be made a certain way.

Posted by: S J | January 24, 2013 12:36 PM    Report this comment

Continuing (3/3):

Boeing tends to be pretty arrogant about levying specifications to their subcontractors, and sometimes they get bit rather harshly in the empennage, and appropriately so. Just my $5.00 worth...

Posted by: S J | January 24, 2013 12:37 PM    Report this comment

I agree wholeheartedly with Dana Nickerson. Nothing government can do has ever made us safe or kept us safe. Ray LaHood telling us the Dreamliner was “Safe” only proves he’s either part of the theatrics, or he doesn’t understand this simple concept.

We have never been “safe”, and we will never be “safe”.

Case in point: a friend of mine was killed 11/6/12 when his company’s C208 blew it’s turbine. Yes, a Caravan, an airframe with utterly docile handling and possibly the world’s most reliable powerplant. How? Brian’s landing off-airport landing was flawless, but through the oil all over his windshield, he could not see the large tree in the grove of brush at the end of the field – and hitting it killed him.

Safety is an illusion, though certainly Brian did everything he could, and all of the rest of us should do what we can to manage risks. That might mean a moratorium on Lithium Ion batteries until we figure out how to extinguish the fires, but I don’t know enough to make that call, and I doubt the legislators do either.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | January 24, 2013 12:52 PM    Report this comment

Parting thought- If the batteries are being overcharged, (as in over-voltage charging), that indicates an improperly designed charging circuit that takes into account battery temperature, charge rate, charge voltage, and battery conditioning and charge cycles. The charging circuit could be the sole issue, or it may be an issue in addition to battery design. The real experts will have to weigh-in and sort out the details to determine root cause and failure modes and effects analysis. Monday morning quarterbacking off...

Posted by: S J | January 24, 2013 12:52 PM    Report this comment

Well, here's one for the conspiracy theorists....

"....Thales designed the Dreamliner's electrical system and commissioned Japanese firm GS Yuasa to produce the next-generation aircraft's batteries..."

Thales is a large French company of electrical systems.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | January 24, 2013 3:41 PM    Report this comment

When the senate gets involved in anything, one has to ask the question of motive. And you can be assured it's not for obvious reasons, for they play their chess games many moves ahead, pawns be damned.

Posted by: Mike Perkins | January 24, 2013 3:44 PM    Report this comment

Should be:

Thales is a large French company which designs and manufactures electrical systems.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | January 24, 2013 3:45 PM    Report this comment

The retired Boeing Lithium engineer said it might be a small speck of iron or something in the battery making a hot spot. I don't know how this can be proved or disproved from the charred remains.

Posted by: Bill Berson | January 24, 2013 4:01 PM    Report this comment

The standard aviation law in all countries is that nothing can be thrown out of a flying aircraft. We most certainly do not want death on the ground from falling objects especially if its on fire.

If America wants to move forward in this global village then it has to outsource to companies of other nations no exceptions. Remember that not long ago China was our biggest enemy and now?

Governments always have big financial stakes in any new aircraft design, how do you think new designs happen. Who do you think was involved in the Airbus A380 besides the German/European, and British governments? FAA, CAA and EASA all have to cowtail to government directions because if they don't they will no longer have a job. So yes we are going to have political involvement.

Well done Paul another good article

Posted by: Bruce Savage | January 25, 2013 7:02 AM    Report this comment

'The standard aviation law in all countries is that nothing can be thrown out of a flying aircraft.'

Bruce, I don't know about the regs, but TP, flour and turkeys - (read Paul's blog, 'Turkey Drop: As God is My Witness...'- we had fun on that one) are common 'violations' here in the States. Cheers

Posted by: Dave Miller | January 25, 2013 11:04 AM    Report this comment

In an emergency situation, the pilot may authorize jettisoning anything and everything including the regulations. That being said, tossing out flaming battery boxes all over the place is hardly a solution to the problem at hand.

Posted by: Richard Montague | January 25, 2013 1:02 PM    Report this comment

"That being said, tossing out flaming battery boxes all over the place is hardly a solution to the problem at hand."

But it is fun, I'm told. I was at the track over the weekend and a friend of mine who set up a Daytona bike told me they used a Li-ion. Not even into the first lap, a corner worker flagged the rider, noticing smoke trailing the bike. (The rider was also getting a hot butt.)

The firecrew showed up, used a tool to chop the battery cables, and bodily heaved the battery into the infield grass. They said it made a spectacular, sparkly and fiery arc across the azure-blue Florida sky before exploding a few minutes later.

Evidently, it wasn't the first time the fire guys had done this. As Pete Conrad observed, perhaps a little more testing is needed.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | January 25, 2013 2:51 PM    Report this comment

I'm interested in hearing why these battery issues are only becoming apparent now, rather than during the certification process. There must be something different about how the aircraft is operated on the line, versus during testing, unless it just happens to be a simple matter of statistics.

At least Apollo 12 was able to continue on successfully. Maybe the 787 needs some sort of auxiliary SCE of its own ;-)

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 25, 2013 3:22 PM    Report this comment

A farmer in RSA was about to take off in a P28 when the tower stopped him to investigate the lumps that had developed on the upper wings. The farmer though it a good idea to strap live chickens to the fuselage sides and top of the wings. I wonder how long those chickens would have lasted forget about the pilot. As they say only in flying.

I believe the Li-ion battery problem was well understood before the concept of the 787.

Just as a matter of interest how many lightning strikes has the 787 endured and what were the results? Tests done on the plastic wings (carbon fiber etc) for the AS400 were shocking the plastic was left with big holes and the area damaged beyond repair. Maybe this is the next issue that is to dog the Dreamliner.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | January 25, 2013 4:42 PM    Report this comment

If it was possible to eventually work out the numerous technical bugs with the V-22 Osprey to the point where we now have a technological baseline established for tiltrotor aircraft, some day we will similarly establish a good technological baseline for lithium ion aviation batteries and advanced composite-construction Part 121 aircraft. I recently saw on the American Helicopter Society Facebook page (one of my FB "likes"), that the V-22 is being developed for Presidential-level VIP transportation. So I hope that eventually, we'll see the 787 and its associated Li-ion battery debugged to the point where Uncle Sam will designate the 787 as the VC-whatever and utilize it as a high-level government VIP, if not an Air Force One-level transport.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 28, 2013 9:10 AM    Report this comment

Congress getting into the act. This reminds me of the thing said by Will Rogers. "When there is an accident, Congress acts, when Congress acts it's an accident",

Posted by: kent tarver | January 29, 2013 9:51 PM    Report this comment

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