FAA grounds 787; first since DC-10

The US Federal Aviation Administration grounded all US-registered Boeing 787. There are only six–all operated by United Airlines–but equivalent regulators typically follow the lead, though they don’t have to.

This is the first ground of a US-made commercial airliner since the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 was grounded in 1979, following a crash at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

The move was becoming more and more widely talked about in aviation circles. We’re on a multi-stop trip in Europe and more and more people we’ve visiting had been talking about the prospect of grounding.

Buckingham Research issued a note about a company that is in the process of producing a new lithium-ion battery design of later technology:

From the Buckingham note

We think BA does have alternatives if it decides to replace the current Li-Ion batteries.

  1. We recently spoke with EaglePicher, a competitor to GS Yuasa (787 battery maker).
  2. EaglePicher has a Li-Ion battery technology currently being certified for a business jet.
  3. EaglePicher notes it could have a 787 Li-Ion battery designed and certified in 12-15 months.
  4. EaglePicher’s Li-Ion battery conforms to current (and far stricter) FAA standards for Li-Ion batteries.
  5. Consequently, we think BA has design alternatives if it decides to replace the current battery.

37 Comments on “FAA grounds 787; first since DC-10

  1. Nah. They’ll switch to a proven Ni-Cd battery as a stand-in while trying to upgrade the old. Adds weight, volume, and complicates recharge. But it is the fastest way to get the bird back in the air.

  2. I am not sure, but I think that in the case of the DC-10 the airworthiness certificate had been suspended. In the case of the 787 it looks like a temporary measure, pending a review. On the other hand, the solution to the Lithium-ion batteries could take some time to implement, in addition to the time it will take to determine the best course of action.

  3. The main issue is already mentioned by Scott indirectly, it’s the time. It’s pain in the ass to have something certified. Waiting 12-15 months for an alternative battery is a horrible option for Boeing. The must find battery already certified to get back to air faster.

  4. If the FAA and EASA decide to retain the Lithium-ion technology, which is most likely, it would be nice to see a cooperation between Airbus and Boeing on this issue. Saft may have a substitute readily available for Boeing.

  5. Boeing has issued a very appropriate statement following the FAA decision:

    Boeing Chairman, President and CEO Jim McNerney issued the following statement today after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an emergency airworthiness directive that requires U.S. 787 operators to temporarily cease operations and recommends other regulatory agencies to follow suit:
    “The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority.
    “Boeing is committed to supporting the FAA and finding answers as quickly as possible. The company is working around the clock with its customers and the various regulatory and investigative authorities. We will make available the entire resources of The Boeing Company to assist.
    “We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity. We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787’s safety and to return the airplanes to service.
    “Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and the inconvenience to them and their passengers.”

  6. Scott, I don’t know this EaglePitcher company but I guess the quickest solution for Boeing is to do like Airbus : buy Li-Ion batteries straight from SAFT which has been in the business for a long time.

    • Yes.

      Would be quite interesting to know about the decission process that went for Yuasa
      from the market : prismatic cells from Yuasa, cylindrical cells from Saft and probably some other products.

      Also it is open if the batteries were “abused” into fault. Low mass and low impedance intrinsic to Li-Ion will pronounce the results from misshandling or cavalier design approaches.

      • Uwe, I think the Saft cylindrical cells are for emergency lighting, not for the APU or main batteries.

  7. As I recall- CESSNA had to remove and replace LI-ION batts from their new jet about a year ago.

    My bet is that BA will have to go to NI-CAD for a few more years

      • Uhh 123 went belly up !! and the date is about a year after the FAA AD I posted

      • bankrupt in oct 2012, bought by Wanxiang Group om dez. 2012.

        The A123 announcement is from 2007.

    • DATE: AD #:
      FAA Aviation Safety
      October 6, 2011 2011-21-51
      Emergency airworthiness directive (AD) 2011-21-51 is sent to owners and operators of Cessna Aircraft Company Model 525C airplanes.
      This emergency AD was prompted by a report of a battery fire that resulted after an energized ground power unit was connected to one of the affected airplanes equipped with a lithium-ion battery, Cessna part number (P/N) 9914788-1, as the main aircraft battery. This condition, if not corrected, could result in an aircraft fire.
      Relevant Service Information
      We reviewed Cessna Citation Service Bulletin SB525C-24-05, dated September 29, 2011. The service information describes procedures for replacing lithium-ion main aircraft batteries, Cessna P/N 9914788-1, with Ni-Cad or lead acid batteries.
      FAA’s Determination
      We are issuing this AD because we evaluated all the relevant information and determined the unsafe condition described previously is likely to exist or develop in other products of the same type design.
      AD Requirements
      This AD requires accomplishing the actions specified in the service information described previously.
      Authority for this Rulemaking
      Title 49 of the United States Code specifies the FAA’s authority to issue rules on aviation safety. Subtitle I, Section 106, describes the authority of the FAA Administrator. Subtitle VII, Aviation Programs, describes in more detail the scope of the Agency’s authority.
      We are issuing this rulemaking under the authority described in Subtitle VII, Part A, Subpart III, Section 44701, “General requirements.” Under that section, Congress charges the FAA with promoting safe flight of civil aircraft in air commerce by prescribing regulations for practices, methods, and procedures the Administrator finds necessary for safety in air commerce. This regulation is within the scope of that authority because it addresses an unsafe condition that is likely to exist or develop on products identified in this rulemaking action.

  8. Unfortunately – the SAME management methods that clobbered the DC-10 were used for the 787.

    NO thanks to the McDummy crowd- outsourcing instead of using inhouse controls, and reducing source inspection- saving a few bucks- but costing a few billion and climbing

  9. Scott,
    Eagle Picher claims to have a Li-Ion battery that conforms to current, and more stricter, FAA standards. Would you know what requirements exactly have been made stricter for these batteries? Does this imply that perhaps the FAA did indeed drop the ball as far as Li-Ion batteries and the 787 goes (again, assuming that the batteries themselves are the problem here and assuming that there is indeed a problem and not just a run of bad luck and bad timing)?
    If Boeing drops Yuasa, I wonder how that would go over with the Japanese.
    12 to 15 months to develop is not an option for Boeing. If they do a temporaray switch to Ni-Cad, they could possibly be hit for performance penalties (depending on the weight involved). Many here have written of Ni-Cad being bigger and heavier and less efficient but none have given any indication of by how much. Are we talking a pound or so? Much more? Much less?
    Some are advocating the use of batteries from SAFT. Does this mean that it has been proven that the batteries from Yuasa are defective in some way, whereas those from Saft are not? Would it be a guarantee that the battery from EaglePicher would solve the problem? But first, is it 100% certain that there really is a problem and if so, is the problem the battery itself?

    • I don’t and I’m not in a position while on the road to dig this out. One of our enterprising readers most assuredly will dig it up.

      • I am amazed me each time by the fact that you are able to maintain this blog while abroad on business! The only apparent difference is that you interact less often with the crowd. Other than that it’s always the same top quality.

    • Addendum: If Boeing switches temporarily to Ni-Cad, they have to redesign for the Ni-Cad and would more than likely have to redesign for whatever new Li-Ion battery they use, assuming the do so. A bit of a double whammy.

      • Yeah, that’s why I said in an earlier topic after the JAL fire that a quick switch to another battery technology “isn’t going to happen”. If they did that it would require redesign and recertification!

        I expect that, assuming the batteries *are* actually the problem(*), they will either have to replace all current batteries with new ones that have undergone some rigorous proving at Yuasa, or switch them out with similar batteries from a different manufacturer (maybe requiring some rapid extra certification programme). In either case there will be some frequent inspection and testing regime put in place – maybe a software update to rapidly detect and isolate battery issues on the aircraft as well. Only then might they look at a more fundamental re-design using different battery technology.

        (*) But I’m not 100% certain that it’s the batteries at fault here – these issues may simply be the *symptoms* of an electric system problem. Considering several other electrical issues were reported before these battery troubles, it’s still quite possible that the system over-stressed the batteries rather than batteries spontaneously manifesting faults…

    • Eagle Picher seem to be offering prismatic cells. ( Like Yuasa.)
      prismatic cells are intrinsically more prone to having problems.

      Afaik cylindrical cells have significantly better resistance to (repeated)
      pressure cycles.

  10. “Hot chemicals had sprayed out of the battery, leaving a gooey dark residue and suggesting a different malfunction than the 787 battery fire at Logan airport in Boston last week, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.

    The residue covered the battery and splattered over nearby instruments inside the bay. It left a 12-foot-long dark streak from the battery to an outflow valve through which some of the spray vented overboard during the flight.

    The battery was not blackened and cracked open like the battery in the Japan Airlines 787 fire at the Boston airport, said those two people.”


    • What are you talking about, I only see a puddle of H20 left by the rain (even though the pictures show a dry runway and clear blue skies). The smoke is just some evaporating condensation from the dry runway… or the brakes… or maybe some smudge on the camera lens.


  11. As far as the FAA grounding goes, I don’t believe the 787 would have been grounded in 1979. Social media and modern communications have made it more difficult for the regulators to resist the calls of the public, the press and politicians. In a way this is good but it is also bad for Boeing, the 787 and the airlines flying it.

    One can only hope that once the problem is determined not to exist or the problem is found and solved, the very same social media and modern communications will be effective in sending out the message that all is well after all, or all is well once again.

  12. Aero Ninja :
    As far as the FAA grounding goes, I don’t believe the 787 would have been grounded in 1979.

    The FAA has learned a lot from the grounding of the DC-10. In 1979 it was done precipitously. IIRC the Airworthiness Certificate was revoked with no advance warning whatsoever. The way it was done hurt McDonnell-Douglas tremendously. They never recovered actually.

    This time around the FAA proceeded more cautiously. They came out with an advance notification first. And they issued the actual directive the next day. But there is a big difference
    with the DC-10 case. There is not a single crash involving the 787, whereas the DC-10 had a string of bad ones before the FAA decided it was enough.

    With hindsight, we know today that the FAA could have acted in 1979 the way they did this time around with the Dreamliner. But it can sometime be a tough call. On the one hand the FAA has to play its role. On the other they also have to thread carefully, because the damage inflicted to the targeted aircraft manufacturer can be irreparable.

  13. It seems we have two different failure modes for these batteries.

    I would consider that more worrying then one.. probably motivated the FAA to pull the plug on this one.

    • It is an extremely serious problem that at this moment completely overshadows the other “teething problems” that Boeing has had with the electrical system.

      • I have doubts that the batteries are a localised problem.
        I could imagine abuse by way of switching spikes, foldback overvoltage protection drawing overcurrent or some other systemic issue.

        Also repeated pressure cycling should have some effect on prismatic cells.

  14. SomeoneInToulouse :
    But I’m not 100% certain that it’s the batteries at fault here – these issues may simply be the *symptoms* of an electric system problem. Considering several other electrical issues were reported before these battery troubles, it’s still quite possible that the system over-stressed the batteries rather than batteries spontaneously manifesting faults…

    It is an interesting theory which startled me the first time I read about it. But considering the inherent overheating tendency of that particular technology, it could be that the electrical system software is exacerbating the problem, which would otherwise normally be less statistically worrisome. It could also be related to a battery manufacturing defect, or simply a battery design problem.

  15. Uwe :
    I could imagine abuse by way of switching spikes, foldback overvoltage protection drawing overcurrent or some other systemic issue.

    The question is how would a Ni-Cd battery react when subjected to the same abuses?

    • Mostly more benign imho. NiCd get hot on overcharging, and may degrade after significant abuse, they don’t show thermal runaway, tend to have higher impedance and much more mass to absorb that extra heat. _and_ they are well established tech that has fickle properties either known or designed away.
      Most current Li-Ion tech is still newish and evolving fast. They still require some respect when designing them into your product.

      • Thanks Uwe for the CALTECH post. I got there the information I was looking for.

  16. Aero Ninja :
    Many here have written of Ni-Cad being bigger and heavier and less efficient but none have given any indication of by how much. Are we talking a pound or so? Much more? Much less?

    Li-ion is about half the size and weight of Ni-Cd. It also packs about twice the energy. That would translate in a weight penalty of several hundred pounds on an aircraft like the 787. That explains why they are accepted onboard aircraft despite their inherent danger. Especially for an aircraft like the Dreamliner, which needs considerably more battery power to operate.

    That enormous gain in efficiency comes at a price. Compared to Ni-Cd, the potential for an uncontrolled thermal runaway is exponential. Is it worth the risks? To answer that question, those risks have to be evaluated thoroughly. But I don’t think they have been. I haven’t seen the simulations they have done, but I bet they go something like this: The chances of having a Boston incident is one in a million. The chances of having a Boston and a Japan incident is one in a billion.

    They will obviously have to redo their risks assessment.

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