WASHINGTON DC: With airlines from Doja, Qatar to Houston, Texas making plans to resume Boeing 787 flights in time for the summer travel season, the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the cause of a Japan Airlines Dreamliner battery fire in Boston on 7 January has moved from urgent to theoretical. In two days of hearings in Washington in which 16 witnesses testified, the NTSB investigators had little to say that hasn’t been said already in press conferences and a symposium held two weeks ago on the wider question of how to safely use and carry lithium ion batteries in all modes of transportation.
“The NTSB is holding this hearing to explore the battery’s original design and certification. We are here to understand why the 787 experienced unexpected battery failures following a design program led by one of the world’s leading manufacturers and a certification process that is well-respected throughout the international aviation community,” Deborah Hersman, the chairman of the five member safety board said as the hearing began on Tuesday. “We are looking for lessons learned.”
The Dreamliner battery fix approved by the US and European regulators in recent days is the rare case in which an airplane manufacturer made substantial design changes even before the official incident examination was completed or recommendations offered.
And so, to questions posed by safety officials from several countries, representatives of Boeing and its subcontractors Thales and GS- YUASA were prone to speak about the JAL event and a 787 battery problem nine days later on an All Nippon Airways plane as if these failures were ancient history.
Hersman has made a big deal of the fact that the 787 did not live up to FAA certification requirements limiting a hazardous battery condition to not more than one every 10 million flight hours. In his statement, Boeing’s Mike Sinnett agreed the battery performance was not as expected. “When an event like this happens early in the life of the fleet, it doesn’t automatically change our assumptions until we get to a root cause understanding.” Previously, Boeing executives have said they may never determine why the problems occurred. Still, Mr. Sinnett said four modifications to the battery design left Boeing feeling confident the Dreamliner would meet the standard now.
Government authorities have approved flying the jet with changes that include enclosing the lithium ion batteries in boxes that will contain any fire and vent any smoke should a cell overheat. Installing these fixes is being accomplished by teams of engineers who have been dispatched to the hangars of Boeing’s customers around the world.
The NTSB probe which is ongoing, is not limited to an examination of the plane. Investigators are also reviewing the process by which the FAA allowed Boeing to use a volatile formulation of lithium ion not previously allowed on airliners. The cobalt oxide lithium ion was an on again/off again plan, witnesses said. Boeing originally designed the plane with a nickel cadmium battery in 2004. But the plan eventually evolved to use lithium ion. That decision was re examined after two events, a 2006 fire at Securaplane Technologies, an Arizona avionics company producing the battery charger for Boeing and an unexpected charging event at a test lab in Illinois in 2009. Ultimately though, Boeing was convinced to achieve its goals with the 787, lithium ion batteries were the way to go.
After two days fielding questions from the safety board, Boeing and the FAA made it clear they still believe they made the right decision on lithium ion batteries. The NTSB is not ready to weigh in with its conclusion, though by the time it does, it is very likely all the Dreamliners will be flying once again.
(Photo above and main courtesy of AirTeamImages.)
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