Ethiopian 787 fire: the day after

Update, 12n PDT: The British Air Accident Investigation Board has issued its first press release. No apparent connection to the APU or batteries, but otherwise a standard we’re-working-on-it statement.

Unrelated to Ethiopian: Fascinating animations of the Asiana Flt 214 crash.

Original Post:

The origin of the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 fire remains unclear the day after the event.

The New York Times has a recap that’s the best we found early Saturday.

As could be expected, we received a lot of media calls asking about the impact to the 787, to Boeing and some even about aviation safety in general.

We urged media to be cautious about drawing conclusions, other than from the photos it certainly doesn’t appear to have any connection to the previous battery fires because of the location of the fire burn-through on the Ethiopian airplane. The batteries are located far away from the burn area.

The possibility of the fire originating in the aft crew rest area was debunked when The Wall Street Journal reported Ethiopian didn’t configure its 787s with a crew rest area in this location.

Other areas quickly circulating: the aft galley, the air conditioning unit (the Financial Times reported a problem with this aircraft’s AC unit, complete with sparks, had been observed eight hours previously), a general electrical system fault, human error of some kind, and more.

It’s all speculation at this stage. And none of it leads anywhere.

Boeing stock was off $8 in the immediate wake of the news and closed down $5. In after-hours trading it was up 3 cents. Wall Street clearly feared another battery fire at first. But as the day went on and initial facts became clear, analysts seemed unfazed.

We urge media to proceed cautiously in its reporting.

This will clearly be a test for Boeing’s Commercial Aviation Services unit, known as CAS. We reported for CNN how CAS prepared to fan out to install the batter fix and to repair the fire-damaged JAL 787. This fire damage is far worse, and it puts to the test not only CAS’s ability to repair this airplane but the entire Boeing claim that a composite fuselage can be repaired from major damage.

Being first is sometimes a bitch.

Boeing has paid dearly for being first with the innovations associated with the 787, both in design and in production. The entire industry will learn these lessons, and Airbus with the A350 isn’t far behind with its composite airplane. Although Airbus has taken a more conservative approach with the A350 in a number of areas, one has to wonder what unknown unknowns will lurk over this airplane.

Some people, including us, have been mildly critical of Boeing for not proceeding with new, composite airplanes to replace the 737 and the 777. Boeing says it wants to “harvest” the technologies of the 787 before taking the next step of all-new airplanes. Perhaps harvesting lessons learned is equally important.

Did Boeing try to do too much too soon with the 787? Perhaps. But this latest incident may be little more than some human-induced fire or something originating with a vendor-supplier component that has nothing to do with the design or the systems of the 787.

Still, it’s Boeing’s name on the side of the airplane and undoubtedly some segment of the flying public will see the headlines and avoid the airplane. The public relations damage is real and, having been in the communications business, we feel for Boeing’s Corp Com department.

25 comments on “Ethiopian 787 fire: the day after

  1. Yep- lots of speculation and bad PR in blogs, message boards, even in PPrune.

    IF it is a result of a part failure- it will still reflect on Boeing and their faster-cheaper mode.

    That there was a 787 turnaround due to ‘ technical problems” the same day did not help.

  2. This is the 4th reported electrical fire in the fuselage of a 787. Laredo, ANA, JAL, and now ETH. Add to that a half dozen GPUs that have caught fire while plugged in to a 787 (including, notably, one at Farnborough last year) and you’ve got something like 10-15% of the fleet involved in a fire at some point in its young history.

    This is not about batteries or the P100 power panel or AC unit; these are symptoms of pervasive, ongoing problems with the electrical system. That system is unprecedented in its complexity and load level for a commercial aircraft, absolutely integral to the 787, and poorly understood due to excessive subcontracting.

    Most of those 20-odd early build 787s sitting around Paine Field will be written off. ANA is already rejecting delivery of 3 and other airlines will follow suit. With even new builds suffering poorly understood problems, no one will want the planes cobbled together while the design was still changing.

  3. According to the New York Times, the airplane was powered on. According to the Financial Times, sparks were seen around the air conditioning system. According to other sources, the APU wires run just below the damaged crown area.

    If we put all this information together we could hypothesize that the air conditioning system (AC) was running to keep the airplane cool before the next flight. Maybe the APU was running to supply power to the AC. We know that the latter is the system that draws the most power from the all-electric architecture. Lets assume that a malfunction of the AC caused an enormous draw from the APU and that the wires, which are reported to run just below the fire damaged area, overheated and initiated a fire in the crown. That’s the best explanation I can come up with at this time.

    The reason why I focus my attention on the AC is because it is a new technology that happens to be the main feature of the all-electric concept. And when an aircraft is parked on a hot day in a remote area where no ground air conditioning system, and possibly no ground power, are available, it would be only normal to use the APU to feed the AC. Since the AC already draws an enormous amount of power we could infer that if a malfunction occurred in the AC (or the APU) an electrical fire could have done the damage we have seen on this aircraft.

  4. A rational and well thought out early dispatch from what is another troubling event for the 787. Kudos for your restraint.

    • Interesting comment — when power for for the entire 787 is being supplied from the APU and it runs over a prolonged period of time, a relativelyhigh current must flow through the main power cable, and particularly through any connectors that can become overheated, Is there also danger from APU engine overheating from prolonged operation, or possibly even a tiny leak of high-temperature exhaust gases?

  5. “Still, it’s Boeing’s name on the side of the airplane and undoubtedly some segment of the flying public will …”

    We can hope there is no severe damage to Boeing’s name too, but if they don’t close all those open doors and cover the hole in the crown before the next rainstorm, there may be even more problems.

    Painted prominently on the side of the aircraft is it’s namesake, the “Queen of Sheba”, who was seduced by Hebrew King Solomon according to some old folk tales. With so much speculation about possible causes of the problem, maybe we should ask Her Majesty.

    Here is a link to a painting that depicts the Queen of Sheba:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filejpg:Horse-sheba.jpg

  6. According to a news report, the Queen of Sheba has today been relocated, and now is sheltered within a secure hangar.

  7. Boeing says it wants to “harvest” the technologies of the 787 before taking the next step of all-new airplanes. Perhaps harvesting lessons learned is equally important.

    Technologies, someone made a gaff with that statement.

    Whilst I’m itching to be embraced by the claimed 787 flying experience, at this stage I would not be a willing passenger.

    Whilst not good this incident could not have been more convenient for Heathrow’s fire Service which was adjacent to the aircraft stand, it seems the firemen were on the scene within seconds. By contrast a similar scenario in Addis Ababa, would certainly have had more dire consequences.

    Repairs of this design are a logistical nightmare 787 carriers both operational & pending will be eagerly looking to see the manner in which Boeing addresses the airframe issue, if indeed it can.

    More conventional designs in similar circumstances in which I include the 350 would demand a not inconsiderable amount of reworking to make airworthy, even for transit flight.

    The barrel option really presents Boeing with a dilemma for returning this airframe to the air or being cannibalised in situ, interesting.

  8. Quite how Boeing resolves this is being keenly observed by current & potential operators, similar problems with more conventional airframes would demand a high degree of reworking & usually a ferry flight before returning to service.

    Boeing is in a true dilemma here with it’s barrel design, will it fly again or be carried out for re-barrelling, or cannibalised in situ.

  9. While we don’t know how this fire started, the consequences appears more serious than the batteries issues. How long took for the fire to destroy the fuselage skin and could it happen again (in flight)? Air at high speed coming to the fire… remember me of the Inca’s furnaces. How long would a 787 withstand such a fire in flight?

  10. RE:LD : How long would a 787 withstand such a fire in flight?”
    Good question, but at least this fire had nothing to do with the batteries and more
    with an aft galley fire, which if it had happened in flight, would have been easier to
    extinguish! NOT good for the reputation of the 787, however, so let’s hope that’s it,
    as far as any news about fires on the 787, in flight or on the ground!

  11. RE: Rudy Hillinga: if it was a galley fire sure it could be handled in flight better than it was let alone. But it appears to have being between the inner ceiling and the fuselage skin, at least following the wording of the AAIB “extensive heat damage in the upper portion of the rear fuselage” (not mention of walls, furniture, etc.) and the glimpse through the door showing no damage to the inner wall. (here for example: http://www.flightsim.cz/forum_prispevek.php?id=468958&lan=0&style=2)

  12. The Crash Position Locator is being examined according to new reports. It may contain its own seperate independent lithium battery. If so, it would need to be on-line continuously to maintain its charge.

  13. That’s right, they were not cancellations. Boeing built the planes, painted them for ANA, got JP registrations, and ANA said “No thank you, we’ll take some later builds. And no, we’re not going to pay any penalty for that, thanks for asking.”

    Recall, the plane that caught fire on approach in Laredo was also to be an ANA delivery. Boeing fixed it, said it was fine, even flew it to Japan for a marketing tour. ANA apparently didn’t want that one either – it’s been written off (accounted for as “R&D”).

    Boeing has about 20 early builds sitting around that they’re going to have trouble placing. Many of those planes were assembled 2+ years ago and still haven’t had first flights. Writing those off would be the equivalent of wiping out a full year of profit.

    Another way of looking at it: ANA was badly impacted by the repeated delays in 787 deliveries and was very vocal about it. Now things have changed for some reason. They could have those planes yesterday but would rather get in the queue and take delivery of later builds next year.

    Just my opinion, but I think that’s a factor for many of the “conversions” of -8 to -9 and -10 orders. About 1/3 of the orders for -8s that were in place in 2008 have converted to -9 and -10s. I’m sure a lot of airlines just wanted the bigger models, but are 1/3 seems like a lot. I suspect a lot of those conversions were carriers preferring to wait for later models to give Boeing a chance to work out the kinks. In the case of the -10 those deferrals will likely extend into the next decade.

    A couple of years ago airlines were desperate to get these planes. Now they seem in less of a hurry. Understandable – let someone else take the risk of running a live test program.

  14. I’ve been away, but surely your writing here that

    “The possibility of the fire originating in the aft crew rest area was debunked”

    was a pun that only the English English-speaking world would appreciate?

    Regards from winter,

    Gerard

    ________________________________

  15. Robertson, Gerard :
    I’ve been away, but surely your writing here that
    “The possibility of the fire originating in the aft crew rest area was debunked”

    I’m sure there was no pun intended. The confusion comes from BA drawings showing an upper 4 bunk or so crew rest area above the aftmost doors as an option. It took a while to find out that apparently the plane involved did not have such an option installed- leaving perhaps a relatively void space or one with an extra air conditioner .

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