Boeing testing found remote battery-fire risk
Preproduction tests of batteries on Boeing Co. (BA)’s 787 Dreamliner didn’t start a fire during an intentional short-circuit, leading the company to conclude the risks of a blaze were remote, according to a U.S. report.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which released preliminary findings yesterday on a January battery fire, said it will hold an investigative hearing in April on the design and certification of the 787’s lithium-ion battery system.
“It really appears that inadequate testing was done or a failure to anticipate these failure modes,” Patrick Veillette, a pilot and former military accident investigator, said in an interview.
The NTSB report didn’t identify the underlying cause of a short-circuit that, according to safety board investigators, led to a battery fire aboard a Japan Airlines Co. 787 in Boston on Jan. 7.
Boeing’s new aircraft, built with light carbon-fiber materials instead of metal to be more efficient, has been grounded worldwide since Jan. 16 after a second lithium-ion battery failure. It was the first such commercial aircraft grounding since 1979.
The JAL Dreamliner battery caught fire on the ground after landing. An All Nippon Airways Co. (9202) 787 made an emergency landing in Japan nine days later after a battery emitted smoke and fumes.
The NTSB report is “a positive step in the progress toward completing the investigation of the Jan. 7 event in Boston,” Marc Birtel, a spokesman at Boeing’s commercial headquarters in Seattle, said in an e-mail. “The Boeing team has worked tirelessly in support of the NTSB to help develop an understanding of the event and will continue to do so.” Boeing is still reviewing the material released yesterday, Birtel said. Boeing rose $1.97, or 2.5 percent, to close yesterday at $81.05 in New York trading.
In addition to the investigative hearing, the NTSB plans to hold a forum on lithium-battery safety in April. Fires linked to lithium-based batteries have been involved in three cargo aircraft accidents since 2006.
The U. S. Federal Aviation Administration announced Jan. 11 it was reviewing the 787’s safety to ensure that nothing was overlooked during certification.
In addition to the 787’s carbon skin and frame, Boeing installed unprecedented new electrical systems to further reduce weight and enhance efficiency.
The FAA is preparing for a decision to let Boeing proceed with plans to harden the battery against overheating and fire, and eventually return the plane to service. Administrator Michael Huerta told reporters Feb. 28 that he expected his staff to present recommendations as early as this week.
Boeing presented the FAA with its proposed fix on Feb. 22 in a bid to get the plane airborne again. The agency hasn’t yet ruled on the Boeing recommendations.
Huerta said the Boeing proposal contains three layers: using sensors and circuitry to ensure that none of the eight individual cells within a battery overheats; pre- venting a failed cell from harming adjacent cells; and protecting the plane from damage if all the cells burn.
Huerta said Boeing’s proposal was “very comprehensive.” In addition to Huerta, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has said regulators must be “1,000 percent sure” the plane is safe, must also agree. The first step, according to Huerta, will be a sign-off on Boeing’s plan to re-certify the plane. Commercial flights won’t resume until the batteries pass a series of tests in laboratories and in flight, he said. The fixes are designed to deal with every possible type of battery failure, Huerta said.