Finding the “Root Cause:” The world waits for the Boeing 787 to return to service, following a series of proposed “fixes” designed by Boeing in conjunction with its relevant suppliers and with help from Ford, General Motors and other experts versed in lithium ion batteries.
The National Transportation Safety Board, investigation the Japan Air Lines battery fire in Boston, and the Japanese investigators trying to figure out the battery melt-down of the ANA battery in Japan, have yet to identify the root cause of the issues.
This disturbs many, who question the wisdom of prospectively returning the 787s to service without know the root cause. We confess we’re not too happy about this, either…the idea of an in-flight fire simply scares the bejesus out of us. (So does Boeing’s insistence no “fire” occurred, just two-inch flames in the JAL case and none at all with ANA. This simply is an eye-roller.)
But Sunday we were watching a program on the Smithsonian channel called Air Disaster. This program examines air accidents and near-accidents and this particular episode was called Turning Point, about Northwest Airlines flight 85 in 2002.
The flight was two hours west of Anchorage on its way to Tokyo (six hours away) when there was a rudder hard-over. Through superb airmanship, the flight returned to Anchorage and a one-shot emergency landing. The flight landed safely.
Investigators determined the Power Control Module (PCM) end cap blew out. The connecting rod went beyond the end of the PCM end cap and jammed the rudder. There was no apparent reason why the end cap blew out.
The long and the short of it: the NTSB could not find the root cause of what happened. But “stops” were added to the PCM to prevent the connecting rod from extending beyond the end cap location should another end cap blow out. Four years later, one did and the Air France 747-400F landed safely. Only then was it discovered that a design defect caused the failure.
This brings us to the 787. Many ask how the Federal Aviation Administration can clear the 787 to return to service without finding the root cause first. Boeing’s redesign has several elements to it, but to us the key one is the element intended to deny oxygen to the battery and thus snuff any fire before it can get started. Basic science tells us if there is no O2, there is no fire.
We recognize that many will say Boeing, its suppliers and the FAA should have designed this system in the first place. But as we have written on more than one occasion, aviation is replete with instances where testing was thought to be adequate only for later service to demonstrate through incident or worse that a flaw worked through the system. We’re just glad this flaw was discovered before any lives were lost or even any serious injuries occurred.
As for the prospect the FAA will allow the 787 to return to service but with ETOPS restrictions: we don’t see why restrictions should be imposed. When Reuters asked for our opinion about the prospect the FAA might restrict the 787 to only over-land flights, we said this would be very damaging and this is true. Since then there has been some speculation the ETOPS would be reduced from 180 minutes to 120 minutes. While this would be inconvenient, costly to airlines and still hurt the 787 business case, this is far less damaging than prospectively restricting the airplane to over-land flights.
Boeing said that it expects no restrictions (Mike Sinnett, 787 engineer, at the Tokyo press conference). Our view is rather pragmatic (or fatalistic, depending on your point of view). Given the information from Airbus in a 2012 fire-and-smoke study (totally unrelated to anything involving batteries or the 787) that a fire can go out of control in eight minutes and you need to land within 15, it doesn’t really matter whether ETOPS in 60, 90, 120, 180 or 330 minutes. If there is an airborne fire, chances are you’re cooked no matter what the ETOPS. (It also might be problematic for land within 15 minutes from a cruising altitude of 41,000 feet to an airport that could accommodate the 787 in any event.)
Note: we caution readers planning to comment on the above to watch yourselves. We’re clamping down on spurious and ill-considered tirades.
Bad Pennies: You know what they say about bad pennies always coming back. This couldn’t be more true with Scot Spencer, the convicted felon who keeps turning up in commercial aviation circles. We knew this guy when he and others purchased Braniff Inc (the second one) from the Hyatt family, ran this into the ground and bankrupted it, then started a third Braniff. Spencer and one of his co-investors went to jail for bankruptcy fraud.
Reputations of several respected airline officials Spencer and his co-investors hired to run Braniff Inc were damaged by their association with Spencer. We then wrote for trade magazine Airfinance Journal and revealed a scheme called upstreaming from a series of aircraft leases whereby Spencer and his co-investors bumped the lease rates they paid to higher rates subleased to Braniff, adding tens of thousands of dollars per month to Boeing 737s leased to the carrier through a separate company owned by Spencer and his co-investors. Once this was revealed, a $100m financing was withdrawn prior to closing. Braniff Inc ceased operations a few months later.
The Department of Transportation banned Spencer from future airline involvement, so he went to San Bernardino (CA) and in a move that still baffles us, persuaded elected officials there to give him millions of dollars in contracts to develop the former Norton AFB into a commercial airport. The project was silly to begin with–the Ontario Airport is just down the road–but even knowing Spencer was a convicted felon didn’t dissuade these stupid officials from giving Spencer contracts.
This story, complete with photo of Spencer in custody and hiding his handcuffs, has links to several other stories.
This old document has some of the sordid history of Spencer’s involvement with Braniff.
Here is a court record of Spencer’s bankruptcy fraud.