Perspective on 787 Boston incident

Update: Wall Street Journal reporting United Airlines found mis-wired battery following inspections in wake of JAL 787 fire.

Update, 1215 PM PT: Boeing issued this statement regarding the fire incident:

“Regarding yesterday’s event onboard a Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 at Boston Logan Airport, we are working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), our customer and other government agencies. JAL has reported that smoke detected while a 787 was on the ground after passengers disembarked and during cleaning was traced to the battery used to start the auxiliary power unit (APU).

“As is standard practice within the industry, it would be premature to discuss additional details at this stage as the investigation is ongoing. However, nothing that we’ve seen in this case indicates a relationship to any previous 787 power system events, which involved power panel faults elsewhere in the aft electrical equipment bay. Information about the prior events has been shared with the NTSB and they are aware of the details.

“Boeing is cooperating with the NTSB in the investigation of this incident. Before providing more detail, we will give our technical teams the time they need to do a thorough job and ensure we are dealing with facts not speculation.”

Original Post:

We’ve been inundated with calls from media asking what we think about the small fire and battery explosion on the JAL Boeing 787 parked at Boston. A couple of questions were common:

  1. What does this mean for the 787?
  2. Would you fly it?
  3. Is there a problem with the airplane?
  4. Are problems like this common with new airplanes?

Before addressing these specific issues, we want to say: use caution in drawing any conclusions. There is much more we don’t know than what we do know.

We don’t know:

  • Was the plane using its APU or on ground power? We haven’t seen a definitive report on this.
  • Was the battery defective? If so, was this a one-off defect or a design defect or a production defect?
  • Or was there human error in constructing or installing the battery?
  • Was there a system problem, defect or design issue that caused the battery fire, rather than the battery itself being the root cause?
  • And so on…

To answer the questions that we’ve been asked above:

  1. It’s too early to draw any conclusions about what this means for the 787 program. If this is a one-off incident that is quickly identified, then there is little if any impact. If this a systemic design issue, then that’s a different answer which depends on what the design issue might be.
  2. Yes, we’d fly the 787.
  3. By this question, this is asking if there is a design flaw or flaws with the airplane. We don’t have anything to suggest this is the case, but in reality any conclusions that there is something “wrong” with the plane will have to come out of a thorough investigation.
  4. Most new aircraft types have teething issues, and the 787–with more new technology than any aircraft since the dawn of the jet age–is no exception. But we don’t have statistics to draw conclusions.

It is a major concern to us, however, that the battery is of a lithium-ion design. There have been at least one and maybe two cargo aircraft (both Boeing 747-400Fs) brought down by lithium battery fires in the cargo manifests. We acknowledge that these were large quantities of batteries being shipped, but we also note that the FAA has restricted these batteries in the passenger cabin (TV camera crews, for example, now have to adjust their plans to carry camera equipment on board previously equipped with these batteries).

The FAA imposed a Special Condition regarding the use of lithium batteries on the 787. It was fortunate that this incident occurred on the ground, shortly after passengers disembarked. We shudder to think had this malfunction occurred during a trans-Polar or trans-Ocean flight with no place to land.

It doesn’t appear to us that this incident had any connections to previous electronic glitches on the 787.

50 Comments on “Perspective on 787 Boston incident

  1. Scott you are right the real story usually is different then people think based on early limited information.

    Still a try 😉

    What does this mean for the 787?
    – Apart from another failure in the electrical system, serious PR damage is around the corner. The public wonders if this is still “normal”.

    Would you fly it?
    – Asked that my self. If I had an alternative A340-300 for a Pacific flight waiting at the next gate, leaving 15 minutes later, would I pay $20 to get on? Maybe.. I said 2 yrs ago I would wait a year after EIS before boarding a 787, based on nothing more then the many unwelcome surprises during the development/ certification phase.

    Is there a problem with the airplane?
    – With the batteries, electrical system. All from subcontractors. Issue is, most of the aircraft is from subcontractors, including (specially) all critical systems. Or is it maintenance.. does it really matter?

    Are problems like this common with new airplanes?
    What is a reference, the A380? The short wiring delay gave Airbus much time / flight hours to mature the aircraft because first flight and certification were pretty much on schedule. Apart from the T900 explosion I’ve seen little fires.. The cracks seems manageable even common on new and old aircraft.

    • “.. most of the aircraft is from subcontractors .. ”

      Boeing is the conceptual design owner and resultant certification holder and final integrator of this plane.
      Any issue is an immediate Boeing problem.

      • Not quit irrelevant. Off course it will be a immediate Boeing problem. Nevertheless at the start, Boeing had a hard problem to ensure that it had subcontractors under control over what they were doing. One would assume and hope that this is all part of the past. But the last two/three years the pressure to preform by Boeing and the pressure it must have put on subcontractors can have been nothing but enormous. Big pressure can sometimes lead to bits of nasty.

    • In addition to A380s as the most recent example,707s, DC8s had teething issues. DC6s, Constellations, Martin 202s, Comet, all had issues. Endemic to aviation and new airplane types.

  2. Batteries are energy storage, and the newest ones pack a great deal of energy into a small space. They are also very poorly understood. Engineers often accept spec sheets, and will consider a lithium battery to be a “better” version of a lead-acid battery. But the different technologies make them very different beasties, in everything from charge and discharge to, yes, fire hazard.

  3. Irrelevant.
    Boeing is the conceptual design owner and resultant certification holder and final integrator of this plane.
    Any issue is an immediate Boeing problem.

    Yes and no.

    Boeing is leaning heavily on its risk sharing partners. And Hamilton Sundstrand has the bulk of the electrical system and makes the APU, so I am sure they have a lot of skin in the game for its battery.

    This hurts Boeing, but it flows down, and fast.

  4. iPuck :Batteries are energy storage, and the newest ones pack a great deal of energy into a small space. They are also very poorly understood. Engineers often accept spec sheets, and will consider a lithium battery to be a “better” version of a lead-acid battery. But the different technologies make them very different beasties, in everything from charge and discharge to, yes, fire hazard.

    To a certain extend, this is true.
    The main difference wrt Lead-acid in term of safety is that in case of failure Li-ion burn and that these fires are more difficult to put off.
    Please read from page 84 of the following study:

    It is appaling that FAA granted Boeing these special conditions as I am afraid that a major accident is just around the corner.

    • Li-* systems combine high energy density with high power density.
      i.e. a lot of energy can released on short notice.

      Will be interesting to see if the FAA requirements have been met in this incident.

      • and flammable components, not the case in previous battery system such as Lead acid or NiMH

      • Feds does not mean FBI in this case. It’s the NTSB, which has no legal power to speak of. If sabotage was suspected the FBI would have been deployed to assist the NTSB and possibly take control of the investigation. We are not there yet.

  5. Q2 Would you still fly it? Well we are scheduled to recieve a 787 service from PER-DOH next month, would I fly it.. I’ve thought about it but No actually I won’t at this point.

  6. I think the main reason this is a troubling 787 incident, and one which few people seem to actually articulate for some reason (the elephant in the room), is that this is the *fourth* time (if Air India is to be believed) in a very short period with a very small fleet that a potentially serious electrical fault has manifested itself.

    Those who say “nothing unusual, all aircraft have teething problems” seem to be wilfully ignoring the very real possibility that all four incidents *could* be related, even if the details of each case vary.

    It’s also possible that all four are entirely independent issues, nevertheless it’s feasible that some common power management issue could indeed cause arcing in ZA002, trip some circuits on the United aircraft, overload a battery on the JAL bird and cause some unspecified incident during the Air India delivery flight.

    *That’s* what concerns me, and I suspect others, now!

  7. Do we even know this is definetly an electrical system problem? Or is it a battery problem that damaged the electrical system? Do we even know the four incidents, UA, QR, AI, and now JL are even related to each other? Only the seprate incident during flight testing/certification on ZA-002 was something that tied all of the electrical system into one management board.

    All new airplane models have teething problems, some more than others. In this respect, the B-787 is now different, nor is the A-380. I hope Airbus is taking notice because they are about to begin flight testing of the most closely related airplane to the B-787, their A-350. But, still the B-787 is a quantum leap in technology for airplanes, and by design is still more advanced than the A-350. Parts of the A-350 rely on older “tried and true” technology, and parts of it are related to the technology of the B-787.

    The first B-787 was delivered to NH some 15 months ago, and has been in airline service for about 14 months. To date, 49 B-787s have been delivered to 8 different airlines, flying both engine types. They have flown some 1000 combined commerical flights and have had 4 incidents, for a rate of about 0.4%, one of those on the ground. This rate may seem high, and it is by todays standards, but it is much lower than the Comet-1, B-707, and DC-8 when they were at this same point in their level of maturity. The Comet and later more successful B-707 was the last major leap in technology. The B-707 was more successful because Boeing had a major advantage up in experience in large jet aircraft thanks to their production of the B-47, B-52, and KC-135. Yes, the B-747 was another leap, but that was not as big a leap as going from piston engine to turbo-jet engine technology and speeds, the B-747 was simply the next level in large airplane evolution.

    I am not minimumizing these incidents, they are serious, and Uwe is right in fearing for a major accident in the future with this airplane. He is also right that it was the FAA who allowed the use of Li-Ion batteries. Scott pointed out that at least two B-747-400Fs were tragicly lost due to carrying Li-Ion batteries as cargo. The Chevy Volt electric car uses this type of battery technology, and they have caused fires (as have lead acid batteries). My point is this technology is far from proven to be safe, yet we continue to use them. It may be time to slow down and use what we know works and works safely until we can be assured we can control Li-Ion technology.

    BTW, yes, I would fly aboard the B-787 anytime, anywhere (except with AI).

    • … and Uwe is right in fearing for a major accident in the future .,..”

      In this context I haven’t actually expressed this sentiment here.
      Additionally I deem it nonproductive that you span your argumentative chain
      to Airbus in tiring frequency.
      What we see imho are issues derived from Boeing trying to jump ahead.
      We don’t see principal showstoppers but a judicious amount of nitty integration issues.

    • Seems you posted almost exactly what I was responding to… *after* I posted my response!

      “Do we even know this is definetly an electrical system problem?” – well all of them had to do with high-power electrics so I would say “very likely”.

      “Do we even know the four incidents, UA, QR, AI, and now JL are even related to each other?” – no, but it’s a strong possibility – and *that* is serious!

      “All new airplane models have teething problems, some more than others. In this respect, the B-787 is [not] different” (followed by the usual turn against Airbus) – sorry, but these incidents *are* different! Teething problems are usually nowhere near this serious… in these cases two involved arcing/fire and at least one more involved partial power loss. These are potentially very dangerous faults! And unlike “normal” teething problems, the root causes (which haven’t yet been identified) can’t be spotted and monitored on existing aircraft.

      “The B-707 was more successful because Boeing had a major advantage up in experience” – I would argue that the Comet would have run away with the jet market if it wasn’t for it’s own teething troubles and the public reaction to them…

    • KC, this is not aimed at you, but mentioning teething problems and the Comet in one sentence I must say:
      3 fatal accidents because engineers moved ahead and worked into the unknown. That’s not “Teething problems”, that’s a horror movie scenario.

      I would fly the 787, knowing about the potential troubles resulting from the “more electric” marketing hype/engineering challenge. I have complete faith in aerospace engineers (being one myself 😉 ). Still, there is such a thing as under reacting.

    • “Grounded a HUGE plane” lol
      But I must say the wings on the plane keep amazing me, really beautiful…
      The 787 will be fine even after some PR-punches.. People still fly on Q400’s (gear), MD-11 (cargo-flippers), till recent DC-10,

      • It might not be a HUGE plane, but it might have a HUGE problem. The Q400 had only a small problem that happened to be spectacular and which was quickly resolved. Not so for the DC-10. It had HUGE problems that eventually led to the demise of MD. But I am confident that this time around the FAA and Boeing will act diligently to solve those issues before they could become catastrophic.

  8. ewaggin :

    I recall that in the case of the early Comet crashes, sabotage was also suspected and investigated. There could not possibly be a fundamental flaw with the most modern aircraft of its day. But there was.

    Now I am not saying that the Dreamliner is another potential Comet. This would not be possible today with the experience we have acquired, along with modern engineering capabilities and certification requirements. Yet, this series of incidents is indeed worrying. Because of the 787’s short but troubled history, it wouldn’t take many more incidents before the public starts to worry about getting onboard this other marvel of modern engineering.

    Personally, I started to worry long before the 787 made its first flight. I had serious reservations about the all-electric concept. What worried me most was the total power that was to be consumed by all the electrical systems. For an aircraft of similar size and capacity to the A330, the electrical power system is almost four times more powerful on the 787.

    I also had concerns about the amount of new systems that would use electricity instead of hydraulic or pneumatic power. To me at the time it appeared that Boeing wanted to change too many things all at once. This does not leave much time for the individual technologies to mature.

    For the reasons mentioned above I had expected the Dreamliner to have problems with its electrical system. It’s still too early to say if my concerns were legitimate, but the string of small incidents related to the electrical system is certainly pointing in that direction.

  9. A ” beam me up Scotty” WSJ update via Airsight..

    [UPDATE: The WSJ is reporting that United Airlines has discovered improperly installed wiring on one of its 787s. This was discovered in an inspection in the wake of Monday’s JAL 787 electrical fire in Boston. The improperly installed bundle of wiring connects to the APU battery which is the suspected cause of the JAL 787 fire. This is the third problem for Boeing’s 787 in past two days.]

    I can imagine pressure is building on FAA to act.

  10. If the FEDS are investigating the fire on the Dreamliner should the FAA ground the aircraft until the aircraft is giving the ok rememderf the COMET that was given the ok to fly until a lot of folks lost there lives owing to a design flaw NO ROUND WINDOWS & POPED RIVETS WITHOUT DRILLING = RAPID DECOMPRESSION.

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  12. The FAA, NTSB, or both have now probably to look at the
    – JAL 787 battery fire,
    – JAL 787 fuel leak and
    – wrongly wired UA 787 in parralel.

    The first and latests findings could be related. What if more Passengers start balking.

    • I agree, the FAA has to get onboard. Not literally of course, because it’s too dangerous. 🙂

  13. I can imagine McNerney, Conner and Shanahan are in the war room and the FAA is on the phone.

  14. At this stage I might get onto a 787. But I sure as heck wouldn’t let any of my loved ones get onto one.

    • This is not A v. B for me. I am very comfortable on either product (most recent flights 738-320-319-320-320-738, got a 772 upcoming, followed by 320-F100-320-320-763-763-320), but with what’s going on with the 787 at the moment, I’d be very comfortable to wait for the teething problems to be resolved before getting onto one.

  15. NTSB provides investigative update on Boeing 787 fire incident in Boston
    January 08
    WASHINGTON – The National Transportation Safety Board today released an update on its formal investigation of Monday’s fire aboard a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 at Logan International Airport in Boston. There were no passengers or crew on board at the time. One firefighter received minor injuries.

    In addition to an investigator already on scene who visually inspected the airplane last night, the NTSB has sent two additional investigators to Boston and formed investigative groups to look at airworthiness and fire and airport emergency response. Senior Air Safety Investigator David Helson has been designated as the investigator-in-charge.

    Parties to the investigation are the Federal Aviation Administration and The Boeing Company. In addition, the Japan Transport Safety Board has appointed an accredited representative and Japan Airlines will assist the JTSB as technical advisors.

    Initial investigative findings include:

    The NTSB investigator on scene found that the auxiliary power unit battery had severe fire damage. Thermal damage to the surrounding structure and components is confined to the area immediately near the APU battery rack (within about 20 inches) in the aft electronics bay.
    Preliminary reports from Japan Airlines representatives indicate that airplane maintenance and cleaning personnel were on the airplane with the APU in operation just prior to the detection of smoke in the cabin and that Boston Logan Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting were contacted.
    Rescue and fire personnel and equipment responded to the airplane and detected a fire in the electronics and equipment bay near the APU battery box. Initial reports indicate that the fire was extinguished about 40 minutes after arrival of the first rescue and fire personnel. One firefighter received minor injuries.
    Further investigative updates will be issued as events warrant. To be alerted to any updates or developments, please follow the NTSB on Twitter at

    NTSB Media Contact:
    Office of Public Affairs
    490 L’Enfant Plaza, SW
    Washington, DC 20594
    (202) 314-6100
    Eric Weiss

  16. See D. Gates’ piece yesterday – Mike Sennett says 4 prior incidents, including one not reported, all resulting from one batch of defective circuit boards from United Tech, causing a few milliseconds of low power arcing which posed no threat but did shut down function which redundant systems promptly eplaced. Very different from the serious battery fire in Boston, according to Sennett. He offered no explanation for that at this time.

    The question as yet unanswered is how in God’s green earth did B allow this cascade of serious, dangerous defects to find their way into these production aircraft? I refer not only to allowing the defective circuit boards to be installed, but the dangerous wiring/fuel line defects in the engine pylons that created a real risk of in-flight fire and explosion, the new fuel leak from another JA 787 in Boston yesterday, and now possible mis-wiring as the explanation for the fire and explosion of the lithium-ion battery in Boston. How could this happen in a program that is three years late largely because B had to fix quality control problems from it byzantine web of suppliers, in a program in which, as B has heralded, B has placed their personnel with airlines to make sure service entry is smooth and defect-free? This, IMHO, is the question that B should answer promptly and in detail to assure everyone that there are up to actually building this plane correctly and can identify and fix any other bet-your-life, bet-the-company defects.

    • I copied the following from the article:

      Addressing an online report by The Wall Street Journal Tuesday that when United inspected its Dreamliner batteries after the Logan fire, it found some faulty wiring installed, Sinnett insisted the battery system is designed so that problems with the wiring cannot cause a fire.

      He said that although the 787 uses more electric power, it uses correspondingly less hydraulics and less pneumatics.

      That means less high-pressure fluid and less hot, high-pressure air moving around the aircraft in titanium ducts.

      The total horsepower generated by the 787’s engines in cruise flight is actually less than on a conventionally powered aircraft, Sinnett said, and as a result there’s “less potential for something bad to happen.”

      Less potential for something bad to happen. Really?

      That’s pure BS (Boeing Spin).

      • In the automotive EV arena the energy release capabilities of high tech traction batteries are still a point of “unhappyness”.
        Hydraulics and high pressure air can be better contained, energy storage is limited and flammable liquids need quite a bit of oxygen available for combustion.

        In contrast a faulty lithium battery will get hotter under lower pressure conditions.

    • “It also heightened scrutiny of the plane’s innovative electrical systems, particularly after earlier problems with the 787’s power-distribution panels, including an incident last summer that has not been previously disclosed.”

      When and which frame would that have been?

    • From the seattle times article:
      “High-energy batteries
      The Dreamliner — whose electrical systems generate 1.45 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 600 homes and four times as much as a larger 777 jet — carries two large lithium-ion batteries, located in forward and rear electronics bays.”

      Summing up all generator capacity 2 * 225kVA ( APU )+ 2 * 2 * 250kVA ( Engines ) for a whopping 1.45MW is probably not correct.

      So how many of the variable frequency generators can you actually bring online at the same time?

  17. Looks like there’s an issue with brakes on an ANA 787, don’t have a link, but it was on Sky ,ews

  18. Uwe :

    Summing up all generator capacity 2 * 225kVA ( APU )+ 2 * 2 * 250kVA ( Engines ) for a whopping 1.45MW is probably not correct.

    Unbelievable, isn’t it?

    But I am afraid these numbers are correct: (2X225) + (4X250) = 1450

    In a previous post (#24 above) I mentioned that the 787 electrical system was nearly four times more powerful than the one on the A330. In the article it is said that the 787 electrical system is four times more powerful than the one on the bigger 777.

    In other words the 787 electrical system is indeed four times more powerful than a conventional aircraft using standard hydraulic and pneumatic systems.

    • So how many of the variable frequency generators can you actually bring online at the same time?

      787 seems to have 2 * 2 VF AC Buses. One (engine) generator for each.
      You can’t syncronise generators as they are Variable Frequency.
      Each APU generator can probably replace one of the engine gens ?
      3 * 250kVA ~= 1MW max online power ?

      • The 787 is not the only aircraft with variable frequency generators. I believe the 787 could fly with two generators only, say from the APU or one engine only. But that’s all standard stuff.

        What is different, totally different in fact, is the number of systems that are driven by electricity instead of the more conventional hydraulic and pneumatic systems that have been the standard for more than fifty years.

        It reminds me of what de Havilland was facing when it introduced the Comet in 1949. The engineers were entering a new territory where common knowledge was of little use, because the altitude prescribed for jet engines was unprecedented.

        The all-carbon and all-electric concepts of the Dreamliner are equivalent to introducing two new paradigm shifts in commercial aviation at the same time. Like DH, Boeing has entered an unknown territory. Multiply that by two.

      • I am aware of the design properties.
        I wanted to have an assessment of how much power can be sunk in the system at any one moment.

  19. It’s a good question Uwe. I don’t have the answer, but I assume that 1,45MW is the maximum they need at any given time; not more, not less. It worries me because that’s a lot of electrons in a relatively small place. We can visualize what it represents as the power of 600 houses in one medium size airplane.

    Jut think of the Swiss Air MD-11 that went down because of arcing. That came about because of the unanticipated addition of IFE systems. We have since revised the certification requirements but the threat keeps growing with the amperage. Now it’s the Lithium batteries. Not a good idea over the Pacific Ocean!

    On the one hand we build more reliable airplanes than ever in order to meet the stringent ETOPS regulations; but on the other we are on a trend of increasing complexity with FBW, IFE, HMS, etc. On top of that their is a push to maximize efficiency with composite materials, all-electric architecture, lithium batteries, etc.

    We are in an era of unprecedented safety in air travel. Each year is better than the previous ones. We are aiming for zero accident. We have come to master hydraulic power and pneumatic systems almost to perfection. They are mature technologies that give us few problems. It would be ironic if the most modern aircraft in the world would come to brake that cycle because of an excess of technology, in the name of efficiency.

    I probably appear overly concerned by this and I probably am. I actually hope to be proven wrong.

  20. I doubt very much that the airplane can use 1.45mW for all the non-electric functions. I’d wager that they chose that size because it cost very little in weight to have that capacity, and they are probably using 20-30% of that number at any time, with a peak (with minimal load management) of maybe 0.75 MW.

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