Boeing 787 gets nod for test flights
BY JOSHUA FREED JOAN LOWY & JOSHUA FREED Associated Press
Friday, February 08, 2013
2/08/13 at 5:26 AM
Boeing won permission on Thursday for test flights of its 787 as it tries to fix battery problems that have kept the plane grounded.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the test flights will have restrictions, including pre-flight testing and inspections, and in-flight monitoring. The tests are limited to airspace over unpopulated areas.
Boeing said the tests will begin "soon" on one of the six airplanes it used for testing before the 787 was certified by the FAA in late 2011. It said the batteries will get a pre-flight inspection, and battery-related status messages will be monitored.
The plane, labeled ZA005, was seen on the ground at Boeing Field near Seattle with stairs leading to the two cargo doors near where the two batteries are housed, KING 5 TV reported on Tuesday.
Boeing said that flying the plane will allow it to test the in-flight performance of its batteries and generate data to help the investigations.
"The company has marshaled an extensive team of hundreds of experts, and they are working around the clock focused on resolving the 787 battery issue and returning the 787 fleet to full flight status," Boeing said Thursday. It didn't say how many test flights are planned.
The planes still can't be used for passenger flights until the FAA is satisfied that the battery problem is fixed. The grounding order meant that Boeing even needed FAA permission to fly an empty 787 from Texas to Washington state on Thursday after it had been painted.
Each 787 has two lithium-ion batteries. One of them caught fire on a 787 after it landed in Boston on Jan. 7. Smoldering in another battery prompted an emergency landing in Japan on Jan. 16, leading to the FAA's order grounding the planes later the same day. The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that the Boston fire was sparked by a short-circuit inside one cell of the battery, but the cause of the short-circuit isn't known yet.
Also on Thursday, the nation's top accident investigator said the government should reassess its safety approval of the 787's batteries. The statement cast doubt on whether the airliner's troubles can be quickly remedied.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating last month's battery fire in a Japan Airlines 787 "Dreamliner" while it was parked in Boston. The results so far contradict some of the assumptions that were made about the battery's safety at the time the system won government approval, said the board's chairman, Deborah Hersman.
The investigation shows the fire started with multiple short-circuits in one of the battery's eight cells, she said. That created an uncontrolled chemical reaction known as "thermal runaway," which is characterized by progressively hotter temperatures. That spread the short-circuiting to the rest of the cells and caused the fire, she said.
The findings are at odds with what Boeing told the Federal Aviation Administration when that agency was working to certify the company's newest and most technologically advanced plane for flight, Hersman said. Boeing said its testing showed that even when trying to induce short-circuiting, the condition and any fire were contained within a single cell, preventing thermal runaway and fire from spreading, she told reporters at a news conference.
Boeing's testing also showed the batteries were likely to cause smoke in only 1 in 10 million flight hours, she said. But the Boston fire was followed nine days later by a smoking battery in an All Nippon Airways plane that made an emergency landing in Japan. The 787 fleet has recorded less than 100,000 flight hours, Hersman noted.
The plane that caught fire in Boston was delivered to Japan Airlines less than three weeks before the fire and had recorded only 169 flight hours over 22 flights.
"There have now been two battery events resulting in smoke less than two weeks apart on two different aircraft," Hersman said. "This investigation has demonstrated that a short circuit in a single cell can propagate to adjacent cells and result in smoke and fire. The assumptions used to certify the battery must be reconsidered."
All 787s have been grounded since Jan. 16. With no end in sight, the halt has become a nightmare for Boeing, which has about 800 orders for the craft from airlines around the world. The company's customers were already frustrated that the 787 was more than three years late when the first one was delivered toward the end of 2011.
Boeing loses money on each 787 it delivers, and the cash burn grows with each missed delivery, analysts have said.
Investigators are still trying to determine why the first battery cell short-circuited, but the board's findings appear to raise doubts about the thoroughness of FAA's safety certification of the 787's batteries and whether Boeing can remedy the problems with the addition of a few quick safeguards.
Original Print Headline: FAA approves 787 test flights
A Dreamliner flies over a Boeing Co. plant Thursday as it lands at Paine Field in Everett, Wash., following a flight from Fort Worth Meacham International Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration gave the company permission to relocate the Boeing 787, which was in Texas for painting when all 787s were grounded last month. ELAINE THOMPSON/Associated Press