Dreamliner in real trouble, or par for the course?
21. January 2013
Only time will tell if Boeing's crop of technical issues on the 787 Dreamliner are a threat, as some claim, to the viability of the composites-intensive aircraft. Without a doubt, a fire on board a commercial airplane, whether in the air or on the ground, is disconcerting and problematic and deserves immediate attention. And given that the 787 has suffered two electrical fires, it's understandable that regulatory authorities would want to ground the plane until issues are resolved.
We now know, however, that the source of the fires has been narrowed to the lithium-ion batteries, the battery chargers and the electrical system that serves both. Initial reports indicated that the batteries were overcharging, but on Jan. 20 the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that the battery aboard the Japan Airlines plane on the tarmac in Boston did not exceed its design voltage. The battery that caught fire aboard a flying All Nippon Airways, on the other hand, apparently did overcharge, overheat and catch fire.
While we might wonder how an electrical system could be designed such that over-charging of batteries is possible, it seems clear that the problem presented by the lithium-ion batteries is, at least, solvable. The task now, it appears, is to determine whether the problem or problems (if there is more than one) is in the batteries themselves, or the electrical systems they serve.
The fact is that any new airplane, as it comes to market, presents technical challenges not detected in flight testing. Layered on top of this is the fact that the manufacture of the 787 was, by virtue of its extensive use of composites, and extensive use of risk-sharing suppliers, unusually complex. And complexity, as we know, increases risk and invites new challenges.
We hope and believe that Boeing will soon solve this problem and return the 787 to service. And we hope and believe that we will look back on this challenge as a small diversion in an otherwise long and faithful service.