Questions to answer in the Ethiopian 787 fire

Note: we refer Readers to this analysis with diagrams.

Note: The Wall Street Journal has this in-depth piece (found via Google News, so Readers should be able to access it) that says:

  1. The fire was in the overhead area over the last rows of the airplane;
  2. “Boeing has been reviewing systems in that area of the jet that would remain powered by the attached ground power supplied by the airport, the person said.

    “What those systems are couldn’t immediately be determined. So-called remote-power distribution units, which act as substations for the 787’s electrical system, and remote-data concentrators, which help distribute data signals to systems from the jet’s central computer, are installed throughout the aircraft—including units next to one another in the ceiling of the jet near the last set of doors on the Dreamliner, where the fire damage appears;” and

  3. “The back area of the 787 also includes a galley behind the last row of seats on Ethiopian’s 787s. One person familiar with the analysis of the fire said the galley is also a focus for investigators. Galleys have various heat-producing equipment, such as ovens and coffee makers. Problems with such equipment in the past have caused fires on parked planes.”

There are a myriad of questions to answer in the July 12 fire of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787. Some probably are already known to investigators but most are not, and as yet the public hasn’t been informed by the British Air Accident Investigation Board (AAIB).

What we, the public, knows (or think we know) at this point is (in no particular order):

  1. The 787 was parked for eight or more hours on a remote ramp;
  2. The airplane, according to the New York Times, was hooked up to ground power;
  3. Also according to the NYT, the flight was 4 1/2 hours from departure;
  4. The lithium-ion batteries aren’t involved, according to the AAIB;
  5. According to the Financial Times, quoting an unidentified airline person, sparks were observed from the air conditioning unit about eight hours before the fire, but we have some skepticism over the accuracy of this report (we don’t doubt the Times accurately reported what it was told but we are skeptical of what it was told);
  6. The fire obviously burned through the skin crown.

Here are the speculative rumors so far (that we have seen), (in no particular order):

  1. The fire started in the galley;
  2. A coffee pot was left on;
  3. The fire started in the air conditioning unit;
  4. The fire started somewhere other than the crown area and propagated to the crown;
  5. The fire started in the crew rest area (later discarded because Ethiopian doesn’t configure its 787s with a crew rest area in the proximity of the fire);
  6. The electrical system has a new fault and this is where the fire started.

So here are the questions we have (in no particular order):

  1. Where did the fire originate? We understand investigators already know but they haven’t made this public.
  2. How did it originate?
  3. What equipment, either as part of the 787 systems or a vendor-supplied component, was involved?
  4. How long was the fire burning?
  5. How was it detected? (Obviously someone knows, but we haven’t seen a public report on this.)
  6. If the plane was hooked up to ground power, was the power actually turned on?
  7. If the power was turned on, why was it on for eight hours (or however long)? (It strikes us that having ground power on for up to 12 hours before a flight is unnecessary and raises a number of questions.)
  8. If the power was on for an extended period, what if any contribution did this have to the fire?
  9. If the power was on for a short period of time, ditto to #8, and why would this have any impact (if it did)?
  10. If the plane was hooked up but the power was actually off, what “woke up” the parts of the plane to cause a fire?
  11. Was the air conditioning story true and if so, what if any maintenance was performed to track down a sparking A/C?
  12. Was the galley involved? If so, why wasn’t there some fail-safe switch to switch it off to prevent overheating (or why didn’t it work it there was)?
  13. Was there some sort of human-induced issue?
  14. Was a vendor-supplied component at the heart of the matter?
  15. Was there something lingering within the plane’s systems from the inbound flight that “smoldered” undetected all this time before the fire occurred? (Happens in house fires all the time.)
  16. And, of course, can the airplane be repaired and returned to service?

There are clearly more questions to be answered, but this is a start.

90 Comments on “Questions to answer in the Ethiopian 787 fire

  1. Continuous “Power On” used for getting around reported boot up problems ?

    Ethiopian Airlines seem to have had a knack for avoiding serviceability issues up to now.

  2. It is strange that the news media has not reported on who and how the fire was discovered.

    But all of your questions, Scott, need to be answered. There are probably many more questions that have been unasked.

    One I would be interested in knowing is who and why is “controlling” the information that is now “known” from being released. Why hasn’t there been pictures released on the interior of this B-787 showing the damage?

    Within a day, or so we knew more about the OZ-214 accident in SFO than we know about this fire incident, we knew about that B-777 down to the final approach airspeeds and even saw interior pictures of it, as well as a video showing the last few seconds of the approach and the crash and its sequence.

    • “It is strange that the news media has not reported on who and how the fire was discovered.”

      Indeed. I felt the same about the first reports out early on.

  3. Re the first point 4., the AAIB hasn’t stated categorically that the batteries aren’t involved. In their press release they stated that the heat damage is remote from the batteries and that at the time of the press release there was no evidence of a “direct causal relationship”. So doesn’t rule out a link being recognised or it being indirect.

    Also, if the computers were powered up, was the Boeing Airplane Health Management remote RT monitoring operating and, if so, why did it not spot the problem before it developed so far (surely fire or smoke sensors would be linked into the AHM)?

    • One or the other battery as source for a fire is very improbably.
      The calorimeter box should suffice for containing that.
      ( Think about the consequences of a containment failure in that place 😉

      • I’m not expressing an opinion (I leave that for those – for engineering that probably includes pretty much everyone here 😉 – much more knowledgeable than me). I’m simply pointing out that the AAIB haven’t stated that “the… batteries aren’t involved”.

      • In my discordian opinion the batteries can still be cause but not source of a fire 😉

  4. “There are clearly more questions to be answered, but this is a start.” Well, it’s avery good start!

    Many questions indeed, but little information to speculate about. But in my mind the most credible clue we have so far is a reported fault with the air conditioning system. Here is why:

    1- It was a hot summer day.
    2- The AC is a cutting edge technology that is part of the all-electric concept.
    3- The AC is the system that draws the highest levels of current.
    4- The AC interacts with the main electrical system, which is itself reportedly unstable.
    5- It has been said that sparks were seen on the AC by maintenance technicians.

    If we don’t have a smoking gun, at least we have a sparking one! I don’t see why the country manager would report this incident in the context of the fire if it was unreal or untrue, and if had nothing to do with it.

    Counterpoint: The AC is nowhere near the fire damage. Yes, but the electrical system runs along the entire aircraft, including the crown area between L4 and R4 doors (APU wires?). I suspect a compounded interaction between the air conditioning system and the main electrical system.

    • Re electrical systems in the area of the fire, I’ve seen Remote Data Concentrators and Remote Power Distributon Units mentioned, both of which presumably have electrical connections (rather than simply being wires)

      • What we need is a three-demensional representation of the complete electrical system layout. That would help us to figure out what might have happened. At least it would help us to eliminate things and suggest others.

    • Normand Hamel :
      1- It was a hot summer day.

      It was a warm day by UK standards — but the 788 operates in many other, much hotter airports.

      • The reason I mentioned the weather is because I think the aircraft air conditioning system was required to be left on a few hours before the next flight to keep the aircraft comfortable for passengers and safe for food. Unless ground air conditioning was available of course. Had we been in early Spring, or late Fall, this consideration would have more than likely been left out of the equation.

        My theory is that the AC has something to do with the fire. Even if it is remote from the fire-damaged section. In most accidents there is a chain of events that are linked together. In this case the AC might be one such link.

  5. kc135topboom :
    One I would be interested in knowing is who and why is “controlling” the information that is now “known” from being released. Why hasn’t there been pictures released on the interior of this B-787 showing the damage?

    Very good point! It seems they are operating in the hiding. Had this happened on the American soil we would already know a lot more by now.

    • We believe the conspiracy theories are overblown. The British have a different culture when it comes to releasing information. No more, no less.

      • Spot on. In the UK, release of information may prejudice any potential legal proceedings, so a UK body would be mindful of this. This doesn’t suggest there would be legal proceedings, simply that airing in the media is not the way it is done.

      • The American culture, at least in aviation matters, is very open. Commercial aviation has developed initially in America. In order to address the numerous air safety problems that kept cropping up, a new modus operandi was initiated that favoured open dialogue versus punitive action.

        In Europe they have not completely understood the value of that philosophy yet. That is why they still bring people to court and hold individuals responsible for aircraft accidents.

        The irony is that the USA has a reputation for taking anyone to court for anything. You can have millions of dollars for spilling hot coffee on a strategic part of your anatomy, but if you kill people while attempting to land an aircraft you have nothing to fear except for your job and reputation. The end result is that you can no longer have a hot coffee in a hamburger joint, but the skies are safer than ever.

        • “Developed in the US”

          Hr hmm. commercial passenger transport started with DELAG and KLM. of the ten oldest airlines one is a US airline ( others South America, Australia, Europe ).

          Is there any research around how the investigative / nonpunitive approach to air savety came to pass?
          My initial assumption was that this was derived from how maritime incidents were handled.
          Forex Germany used to have “Seegerichte” that actually worked to the same principles as the current US approach. With Germany being a later comer my tentative guess would be that this is a “BE” invention?

      • AFAIK organisations in the UK are no less open on aviation safety (history goes back to the study of Comet failures, when the UK government and DH discovered the window shape stress failures and freely shared their findings despite the commercial harm it did to DH and UK airliner industry). The legal issue that informs the way a UK organisation will behave is simply a general one, a preference for ‘trial by jury through the court’ rather than ‘trial by jury through the media’.

      • And one of the points re the legal system is that UK media yesterday were reporting that the Met (police) were treating the fire as ‘suspicious’. Could be yet another ‘frind of someone said’ spurious ‘lead’ and not worth treating as anything more than that yet.

      • Re bringing people to court you need to remember that there is no Europe wide legal system. Some countries (eg France) use a strictly codified Civil Law, some (eg UK) use an evolving Common Law, and some (the Scandinavians) use a 3rd basic type. In the UK Common Law there is a concept of Privity Of Contract which limits contract liability to those directly involved in the contract. I don’t know whether a similar concept influences criminal law in one, two or all three of the general European legal sytsem.

      • Please, I was in no way going down the conspiracy theory avenue. But when the BA B-777 crash landed a few years ago at LHR, the AAIB was more forthcoming of information, IIRC.

      • Just open any of UK tabloids and see what and how intrusively the cover things. The silence around this thing is clearly managed. I find it contemptible.

  6. I am particularly interested in the answers to these questions:

    6. If the plane was hooked up to ground power, was the power actually turned on?
    7. If the power was turned on, why was it on for eight hours (or however long)? (It strikes us that having ground power on for up to 12 hours before a flight is unnecessary and raises a number of questions.)

    I have heard of 5 incidents where a GPU (Ground Power Unit) caught fire while plugged into a 787. An incident at Paine Field and another at the Farnborough Airshow were photographed, but I never found confirmation of the other 3 fires. Notably, these fires were in the GPU powering the plane, but there was no fire on the plane itself.

    I also heard that one carrier, because of 787 problems with burning-out GPUs, decided to stop shutting down the plane entirely; they would start the APU before turning off the engines, and may leave the APU running for days. That way they could restart the engines using the APU without risking burning out another GPU.

    It sounds like this plane was plugged into “ground power”. But is it possible the APU was also on at the time?

    Separately, in the near term I think its good news the batteries were not involved. Had that been the case the whole fleet would have been grounded immediately and Boeing would have to make a more serious revision to the battery design. That would have been expensive and time consuming – maybe months.

    But at least the problem would be obvious and fixable. Longer term, yet another fire, electrical but not battery-related, may be worse. They may say it was a one-off manufacturing problem, or some 3rd party system that is easily replaceable. But the reality is aviation fires are extremely rare, and for so many to happen on 787s suggests a problems with the electrical system that may be hard to diagnose and fix.

  7. Galley supplier is said to be JAMCO, japanese company, it is the new name of a company who makes seats for aircraft .
    Few years ago they were nearly bankrupt after regulators discovered that those seat were not properly certified … SIA experienced this situation, as far as I remember ..
    Now question is : are the galleys and their coffee pot properly certified ?? …

    • I think that is incorrect ( with doing research) Jamco has been a reputable galley manufacterer for a long time. The seats are unrelated.

      Be sure communication professionals have been working overtime to manage the information stream, perceptions, buying time, generalizing, feeding “independent” opinion makers, confusing & overloading with irrelevant truths if required.

      Nobody suggested it was related to the batteries. Hundreds of people “defusing” it has a value of its own though..

    • JAMCO is reasonably old (~1958).
      Looks like Jamco and Koito were distinct entities at the time of the seat cert bruhaha.
      Forex Jamco and Koito both were suppliers for the A380.
      Going forward Jamco has absorbed Koito’s business. not quite clear if that included
      production facilities and designs.

  8. Bearing in mind that Boeing never really found out what was causing the batteries to catch fire (to my knowledge), to then have possibly other electrical systems catching fire, and again, seemingly struggling to find out the reason, this could be even more damaging.
    Boeing need to come out with concrete answers PDQ,

  9. Uwe :
    “Developed in the US”
    Hr hmm. commercial passenger transport started with DELAG and KLM. of the ten oldest airlines one is a US airline ( others South America, Australia, Europe ).

    In the Sixties, that is more than fifty years ago, the six largest airlines in the world were American companies. Europe had a promising start, but WW2 brought commercial aviation to a standstill while it flourished in the USA, especially after the war.

    As to how the non-punitive approach came to pass, I would say it is a concept that developed over a number of years. What was needed was a new legislative framework. In United States a tidal change occurred in 1958 when the CAA became independent of the Department of Commerce. That is when the Civil Aeronautic Act, which dated back to 1938, was rewritten. The CAB (today the NTSB) had now for sole responsibility the investigation of accidents. It is at that time that the FAA was created, with the responsibility of making the rules. But culturally speaking the no-blame concept emerged I believe in the 1990s, or a little earlier.

  10. I have a further question. This is, I think, the first time a commercial composite fuselage has been burnt through. How well did it cope? Or put another way, was it a big fire with commensurate damage, or a smaller fire where a traditional aluminium fuselage would have retrained its structural integrity?

    • Unfortunately we have so far only one picture to help us asses the situation. Still, it looks like it was a major fire. Something that might have smouldered for hours. CFRP is meant to sustain a relatively intense fire, but not over a prolong period. I think the debate of the relative merits of aluminium versus CFRP in a fire situation is only starting. We will certainly all learn something about this in the coming weeks. Including Boeing itself. This incident, whatever it was exactly, will be a Reality Check for aircraft engineers.

      When I first looked at the pictures I was struck by the quantity of foam that had been used to extinguish the fire. And also by the length of time it took the fire fighters: more than an hour. I also counted about a dozen fire trucks around the aircraft. When we put all this together, the amount of foam, the man/hour spent and the apparent gravity of the damage, we can safely conclude that this must have been a relatively intense fire.

      If this had happened during the night it might have gone unnoticed a little longer. In which case the whole aircraft would probably have gone up in smoke. They actually saved a bit of time by having the fire station right beside the aircraft.

      • I forgot to mention the smoke. In one of the pictures we view the aircraft from behind with clouds of light smoke surrounding the fuselage.

  11. I have been busy/ travelling for the last 72 hours, so only saw bits an pieces of all the news.

    It seems clear to me the damage is substantial. I assume that what we see from the pitures is only half the actual damage. The burned away areas covers at least two sections in which spars and beams have been heated extensively and probably lost structural integrity.

    In metal land all surrounding plating would be removed and all the damaged structure would be cut out and replaced. Additional materials would be used to connect everything and the aircraft would be restored at the cost of a weight increase and additional inspection cycles.

    The fully composite monocoque structure with everything baked together is a different story. There have been concerns for the last 8-9 years about the repairs of this kind of damages. In general they were denied (Boeing would never…), played down (simple patches) or generalized (there were composite before the 787). Many have been waiting for a case like this, too see how things are solved.

    Maybe extensive metal plating over the damaged area, cable bundles in the cabin and the aircraft ferried back to the US? Or a hangar bay for say 9 months at Heathrow?

  12. Speculation. Speculation. Speculation. The rumours abound here. But I would like to share with everyone the opinion of the taxi driver who drove me home from LHR today. (I have to say that here in England everyone knows that taxi drivers know more about politics, foreign policy, celebs, and generally what needs to be done about the economy, and anything else you can imagine.) I was told that apparently there is a hot-spot. We have had some hot, sunny weather for a change, and according to my driver, the afternoon sun reflects off all those high up lamps that illuminate the aircraft parking lot, and then concentrate on a specific spot which just happened to be the tail of the Ethiopian 787. This, he said, is a bit like the kid at school who used to go around with a magnifying glass frying ants. But, he assured me, he had this on very good authority, which probably means he got it from another taxi driver who knows more about aeronautical engineering and composite airframes than anyone you ever met. After telling me this he moved on to cricket and what England needs to do to win the Ashes, and blah blah blah. So there you have it. Problem solved.

    • “Being There” You describe a property shared with driving instructors, barbers and .. gardeners 😉

  13. 747s had a few of those in olden days when when wood was still used for structural support. Presumably 787s do not. See the page dump below from a book available via Google: “Fire Safety Aspects of Polymeric Materials vol.4” . Chapter 6 – Spectrum of Fire scenarios.

    But that’s awfully dated, published 1978.They also have one fire scenario in there (section 6.2.4 – reported not imagined) that involved a coffee maker but not fuselage burn through .

  14. What with all of the electrical system related “incidents” on the 787, is there anybody out there who does not see this as a problem for the program if they cannot definitely trace the cause of the fire down to an “on the spot” human cause?

  15. Rudy Hillinga Why is filling out these two lines a new equirement every time I write somethingScott?

    Fires on an a/p are a big hazard, even if they happen on the ground, because it
    is correctly assumed that it could have happened in the air!
    However, the fact that this fire was on a 787, all bells started ringing, while the
    787 can now be classified as one of the most modern and safest a/ps flying, after
    the battery-fire problems were effectively resolved by steel-casing and outside
    venting of the batteries on all 787s in operation.
    The recent order and launch of the latest model 787-10 from SING Airlines, is a
    clear testimony the this effect!

  16. Teething problems are common for new aircraft. “Dispatch” reliability for the 787 is “typical”. Boeing remains fully confident. Boeing 787 Meets Efficiency & Reliability goals. “Rumors” about issues with the 787 electrical system are premature. Much of the speculation we see is overblown. We have to await official reports before we can draw any conclusions.

    I’m not saying folks are trying to seduce the market / flying public. My personal opinion a while back to have the 787 in service for two years before boarding one is maybe, well, irrational and egoistic.

    If it was the A380 or Sukhoi Superjet that had at least 4 fires (2 inflight) caused by the electrical systems, was delayed for 4 years and had a seemingly endless stream of flight diversions, maybe some people would be more outspoken in their qualifications.

    What would make the 787 less reliable? I don’t know anymore. I can see airlines taking some more hardheaded steps.

    • Teething problems ..

      Looks more like the replenishment process for teeth in a sharks face 😉

      Dreamliner : modern and safe

      The Dreamliner has an an abundance of previously not used tech.
      The qualifier “modern” diminishes with every issue and the savety aspect
      still needs to be earned imho.

  17. Isn’t the F/A’s walk around 100% O2 bottle and equipment stowed in the aft overhead bins? While this type of equipment will not start a fire, it can feed it making it harder to put out, and burn hotter if the aluminum bottle becomes punched.

    • Interesting observation. Maybe the fire was spread around, but when it reached the O2 bottles it was intensified enough to burn through the roof.

    • Wouldn’t the O2 bottle just blow up, assuming it was that hot? What makes you think said bottle is made of aluminum? Pretty flimsy container for something as volatile as O2.

      • No, Aero Ninja, these bottles typically do not explode. The bottles are usually designed to withstand 200% of the maximum pressure they are filled to. Aluminum is not flimsy, it is a strong material, but has a lower melting point than steel. The bottle does not have to be melted, just hot enough to reduce the strength of the bottle to cause a leak. Also, the valve assembly, usually made of brass, does have rubber o-ring seals that can melt at a lower temp.
        There is also another type that contains no pressurized O2. It is a small O2 generator. If you remember the ValueJet DC-9 crash in the mid 1990s in Florida, it was caused by small improperly shipped O2 generators that caused a cargo hold fire. That airplane crashed into the Everglades swamps, killing all aboard.

  18. The lack of soot is a bit puzzling. Suggests melting rather than burning?

    • No fire on the outside. ( and the plane was sealed )

      The fuselage crown was heated from the inside.
      Hot enough to have the paint, epoxy resin and potentially fire retardants in the CFRP decompose “coking up” being released as smoky fumes.

      Some images from the inside would be of interest.
      With the relatively localised visible damage to the crown I would expect a compact heat source under the crown or something elsewhere that used the airconditioning piping as a conduit.

  19. CFRP does not melt, it burns. Melting implies a reversible reaction. The cross linking that occurs during cure is not reversible. Any material that remained on the crown was probably washed away by the fire team.

    Aircraft fires result multi-million dollar repair dispositions for any type of airframe. In the case of aluminum, every part in the area needs to checked for deviations in the heat treatment of the metal. Alloy in general is easier to remove/splice/reinforce in case of damage. Burned CFRP generally just has to be gutted out and replaced with completely new parts. CFRP parts are expensive and rebuilds quickly reach the limit of economical repair.

    Based on their website ETH does not have structural repair capability so they will probably have to send out the work buy spares — very expensive when rebuilds are usually significantly cheaper.

    If the fire had the kind of intensity exhibited by the crown burn through, the entire aft section will probably have to be gutted.

  20. Add to that list, a basic design deficiency in having no internal burn-through and FST insulation and protection on the upper 180 degrees of fuselage. A Boeing decision plus big pressure on FAA to agree. Why is that obvious and clear culprit missing?

  21. In January 20th, 1994, the parked A340 F-GNIA burned down at CDG after an A-check. The event was caused by the overheating of the yellow hydraulic system electric pump operating the cargo doors. A relay stuck.
    The fire laid to system modifications by Airbus.
    The incident (only material damages) went without any media hype.
    But of course the A340 had not been grounded due to previous fires.

  22. Too little information from the Brits. They could at least give a new report on what is definitely known
    And they must by now know a lot more than I. Their first report.

  23. This weekend I was hoping that we would have an update this Monday. Very little has trickled out since the incident. Total silence. It only ads to the mystery. It makes me think that the situation is very serious. Not that I ever thought this was a minor incident; but the fact that all parties involved have said practically nothing so far, plus the fact that not much is coming out of the rumour mill, worries me. The situation is probably more complex than it looks from the outside.

    There has been a lot of speculation about the damage inside the airplane. It’s even more difficult to asses than the outside damage because in the pictures we can barely see inside. But in one of the videos I could see firemen walking around comfortably inside the cabin. This could be an indication that the floor was relatively intact. It could also mean that the fire was contained in a relatively small area of the back cabin, up in the crown.

    It has been reported on another website that the upper portion of the 787 fuselage is not fireproof like the lower portion is. That could explain the extent of the damage we see in the crown. This consideration will certainly be part of the final report. But for the time being I would content myself with an interim report…

  24. Shortly after the JAL battery melt down there was a fierce high level battle about what to communicate. the result was the joint Boeing, FAA and DoT Secr. press conference. With everybody telling how confident they were in the 787 safety.

    A few days later we had the ANA in-flight battery melt down leaving the FAA no option after the Japanese themselves intervened. A shameful episode.

    Again teh stakes are very, very high. Regulators have to balance passenger safety and commercial disasters.

    I would not be surprised if we have a background fight going on as we speak. Boeing threatening to hold everyone responsible for the fall out of premature communication.

    • Your post helps me to better understand Scott’s reply #22 above. You are right, “the stakes are very, very high.”

  25. Strikes me the 787 isn’t safe. I would not fly on it until the truth is told about it’s problems and solutions are found and acted upon.

    • It has been reported that some customers are calling the airlines to make sure they will not be booked on a Dreamliner. This is a normal reaction in the present context. But if the issue(s) is not resolved in time it could have lasting consequences for both the airlines and Boeing. But we can rest assured that the best brains will be put to task, and with a clear mandate: fix it!

      The irony is that it has never been safer to fly on an aircraft. But precisely because of that extraordinary safety record and the continuously improving trend, people will quickly forget about those incidents if Boeing rapidly finds a remedy, like it did for the batteries. Boeing is going through rough times again, but it has the required wherewithal to overcome those challenging problems.

      • Normand,
        I wish that I could share your confidence, but given my many past and unsuccessful tussles with both FAA and Boeing, I am afraid that I cannot concur. Maybe iif the NTSB or EASA or JAA steps in, there might be some hope.

        • Your comment reminds me of a recent post I just read on PPRuNe. amicus was sharing with the readers his frustration when dealing with the FAA and Boeing. This experienced individual gave us an enlightening insider view of the safety issues with which the manufacturers and regulatory agencies are confronted with. But what was revealed there was troubling. It reminded me of what we have learned about the 787 batteries certification process.

          Already at the time of DC-10 grounding we learned how complacent, and sloppy by today’s standards, the FAA was in its dealings with aircraft manufacturers. Times have changed and things have improved considerably at the FAA since then. But as you and many others have pointed out recently, a lot needs to be done to bring the FAA to the level we expect it to be today. Especially in a world of increasing complexity and sophistication.

          But like any other legal authority the FAA has to thread carefully. It stands on a very thin line that separates the commercial interests and the public safety. But the recent events, the batteries and now the fire, will force the FAA to put its act together and improve itself like it has done incrementally, but continuously, since it was created in 1958. The NTSB is more proactive where the FAA has a tendency to be reactive. But the tension between these two organizations has brought us into the safest era in the history of aviation.

          Will the 787 be an exception? I don’t think so. Because Boeing stands to loose too much. And Boeing is in a more favourable position than say de Havilland was when the Comet problems started. DH had the will but not the means, whereas Boeing has history on its side.

          • Normand, Thank you and I freely confess to being your “amicus” on However, there is no fine line, passenger and crew safety are key and the fact remains that the Northwest office of the FAA flew in direct contravention of their earlier 1980’s rule concerning no epoxies for any cabin interiors, all such epoxies are loaded with a host of nasties including carbon monoxide, cyanide and about 90 other toxic chemicals regarding FST.
            Please check the ATSB report of the British Airtours 737 Manchester crash and the B-2A crash in Guam, which took over 60 skilled and fully hazmatted firefighters over TWO DAYS to fully extinguish. The USAF’s excellent report is readily available and sent it to both Boeing and the FAA to no avail, of course.
            And regarding fine lines for the FAA, I recall Robert Frost’s line that “Yellow is middle of the road”. You also check Richard Lyon’s many co-authored FAA papers in the 80’s, 90’s and early in this century warning repeatedly of themany FST hazards of epoxy composites. Of course in 2006, he went silent.Another fine line,Normand or?
            And beginning to look like yet another Li-ion fire issue at LHR, this time Hioneywell. Andthe beat goes on. Ground it until properly and finally fixed, we don’t want a repeat of the Comet 1 and DC10 disasters and their associated fatalities

            Cheers and thank you,

    • Lithium manganese primary cells are a well established technology.
      I would be surprised if these suddenly develop sympathic fire events.

      What about exessive condensation in the crown and resultant shorting of
      high voltage connections?

      • Honeywell made something like 30 thousand of them. Looking at the transmitter specs, the thing is 3kg, say 2kg of that is battery and assuming the high end of Li batteries’ energy density range, the absolute maximum power output is 12kW for no more that 1 minute tops. How is that supposed to ignite carbon skin, I have no idea.

    • In one of the pictures I saw light fumes around the emperor’s clothes. See my comment in post #33 above. But in regards to the batteries I don’t think it has been FIRMLY established they were not involved in this incident. But I would agree with the way the NYT phrased it: “Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch, which is in charge of the inquiry, has essentially concluded that the larger lithium-ion batteries played no role in the fire on Friday.”

      But that is just semantic. What I find more interesting, much more interesting in fact, is what the NYT discusses about the emergency location transmitter:

      – The transmitter, which would send out the plane’s location in the event of a crash, is powered by a small lithium-manganese battery. /…investigators were focused on the transmitter and other nearby equipment.

      NOW, THAT’S NEWS! Finally the cat has come out of its hiding. If that is indeed the case it means the situation is much less critical than some of us had anticipated. The burden would now be on the supplier, in this case Honeywell Aerospace. The irony is that it is not the BIG lithium battery, but the SMALL one, that set the aircraft on fire.

      Still, Boeing is not out of the woods yet. Many questions remain to be answered. Starting with the non-fire proofing of the upper half of the fuselage. We also need to understand how the CFRF fuselage reacted to the fire and how Boeing intends to repair it.

      It looks like Boeing will have to design another boom box for the transmitter battery! And Airbus better pay attention to the way Boeing is going to handle this because its own airplanes are full of small lithium-ion batteries. A real pest as far as I am concerned. And watch out how the FAA will deal with the matter. We can expect severe restrictions in the near future.

      • It’s more dangerous than your laptop, even if it probably has a similar battery. The difference is that on board an aircraft the flight attendant is trained to deal with a laptop fire and will quickly eliminate the flight safety hazard. But in the case of the ELT, which is located at the back of the airplane, there is no one there to take care of a runaway. And if this incident had occurred on an ETOPS 360, say over the Pacific Ocean or the North Pole, I wonder if the ELT would have been able to send a signal to help rescuers find potential survivors…

    • Of course the ELT is getting attention in this investigation. Its battery is a potential source of combustion energy that is much greater than the electrical energy storage capacity alone and apparently it is located near the action. It probably contributed to the intensity of the fire, but that does not make it the cause.

  26. I believe Boeing will eventually be forced to redesign large sections of the electrical system of this plane.

    Planes like the 777 use electrical power where it makes the most sense, and bleed air and hydraulic where those make the most sense. With the 787 they applied electrical power for everything possible; they were desperate to reduce weight replacing ducts and pipes with wires was one way to accomplish that.

    Too much load, too much heat, too much complexity. Too many diversions, too many fires. Electric breaks, electric cabin heating, electric wing de-icing, electric control surfaces. A redesign of the electrical system will impact every critical system on the plane except the engines. They might as well design a new plane.

    Too bad they didn’t instead do a “767-X” along the lines of the 777-X. Massive upgrade of wings, engines, avionics, but still lots of commonality with a well understood aircraft. A re-engining alone would have gotten them half way to the fuel economy, and they could have delivered that plane 5 years ago.

  27. Now I have to save my theory about the involvement of the air conditioning system. The only thing I can see at the moment to explain the presence of sparks around the AC is that it was running at the time of the fire and it offered a conduit, as well as a feedback, for the ELT battery runaway.

  28. Derek Yates :
    And beginning to look like yet another Li-ion fire issue at LHR, this time Hioneywell. Andthe beat goes on. Ground it until properly and finally fixed, we don’t want a repeat of the Comet 1 and DC10 disasters and their associated fatalities…

    Totally agree Derek, nothing like the voice of reason from an expert.

    This isn’t about being anti-Boeing or anti-American, it’s about the safety of the travelling public. As I said in a previos post, there are some fundamental fire-related issues with this aircraft that need to be thoroughly understood and corrected before it can be safely brought back into the air. And as an engineer and aircraft enthusiast I hope it does soon.

    • As you said in a previous post? I am sorry, I may have missed your comments. Could you please give us a reference, or better still, a summary here of your thoughts on this. Thanks.

      • Normand, read comment #36 on Scott’s article of the 12th July: “Ethiopian 787 fire at LHR doesn’t look like it’s battery-related”. Regards

  29. What if an ELT battery runaway was induced by the aircraft electrical system, like some people had suggested for the aircraft batteries? After all there are no reported incidents like this on other aircraft models; many of which are probably using the same type of battery. Why would it happen only on the 787? Maybe they will have to recommend to the passengers not to plug their laptops in the aircraft electrical system and rely solely on their units batteries. Can you imagine not being able to plug your laptop in the most advanced aircraft in operation!?

    Boeing must be relieved that the fire was probably initiated by a vendor’s unit. But the aircraft batteries were also manufactured by an outside vendor and that did not prevent the world fleet from being grounded for several months. In a sense, and in essence, the present situation appears to be not much different than it was this winter. In the future they might be able to contain a battery runaway on an ELT, but that will not have solved the instability problems of the aircraft electrical system. In the meantime the 787 keeps flying and frying.

    • The ELT batterie appears to be a Red Herring.

      Lithium ELT primary batteries seem to be known for leaking but not for going up in fire.

      What is noteworthy is that the public seems to be very effectively firewalled
      from usefull information. Interested parties seem to have been well prepared to
      avoid a “trousers down moment” as seen earlier this year.

  30. Surely it is worrying for all that Boeing still does not seem to have an answer to this question, firstly they still don’t know the real reason for the original fires (they have just stopped them bursting out), now this new fire, which they can’t seem to explain, this should be worrying a lot of people I should think.

  31. “Boeing must be relieved that the fire was probably initiated by a vendor’s unit.”

    Most of the aircraft is from sub contractors. Boeing is the integrator, TC holder and responsible for the entire aircraft.

    If I was Boeing I would buy time by pressuring everyone involved to keep quiet until official reports surface. Having a team online 24/7 monitoring for leaks, rumors, photo’s etc. and act upon them immediately.

    Meanwhile you can send out a stream of slightly related information, filtered, positive to slowly overload / confuse the press and public.

    Buying time for 5 days or a week will have the worried travelers and airline industry move on. Let other news grab the attention.

    A link someone linked after the battery crisis:

  32. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. Especially in regards to aviation safety matters. There is a limit to the control of information when your are dealing with the FAA, NTSB, EASA and other similar agencies.

    I think some people are “disappointed” that this fire would have been initiated by a “stupid device” like an ELT. People want to see “blood” but they only find puddles of foam on the tarmac. I thought the way this information was leaked was rather elegant and sound. I have no qualm with it. It just makes sense to me.

    But the story does not end there. In fact this is only the beginning. We are still looking for a route cause. In both cases. The route cause might actually be common. When the news of the London fire broke out many people immediately pointed out the battery. They were right! It WAS the battery. But not the BIG one. It was only a tiny little one. But they have something in common: Li-Ion. And a lion, big or small, is a dangerous animal.

    • On the contrary, I find it highly disturbing that the cause should be something that is flying around today in hundreds, if not thousands of aircraft. If it is indeed traced back to the ELT, or its battery, they need to find out pretty quick if anything has been changed in the design and if said change has caused this failure, or if this is that one in 10,000 incident for such an item.

      I personally believe that unless they find a human error source for this fire (incorrect wiring/connections, crew doing something careless/unauthourised, or something along those lines), Boeing is going to have big problems because it is possibly leading to another “unknown” cause for a fire on their new aircraft or it is another issue with the electrical system, which iseems to be fast becoming a lightning rod for 787 problems.

      • Think about what could make an ELT battery go postal 😉
        Forex exessive heat from a nonfire !?

        If the ELT batterie actually burned it will not happen to be the initiating source.

      • Aero Ninja :
        On the contrary, I find it highly disturbing that the cause should be something that is flying around today in hundreds, if not thousands of aircraft. If it is indeed traced back to the ELT, or its battery, they need to find out pretty quick if anything has been changed in the design and if said change has caused this failure, or if this is that one in 10,000 incident for such an item.

        My view on this is that we should be careful when we decide to put those Li-Ion devices on board aircraft. They should be installed inside a special container and away from flammable material. The chance of having a runaway remains small though. But the consequences for an aircraft can be catastrophic, as it has been amply demonstrated recently.

        But with the Dreamliner things might be a bit different. I am of the opinion that the 787 is highly susceptible to such devices. Possibly because of an inherent, and unidentified, instability of the aircraft electrical system. With the all-electric concept Boeing finds itself in a similar position de Havilland was with the high cabin pressure on the Comet: a previously unexplored territory, with all the associated mysteries.

    • I doubt it was the ELT battery. The whole device is designed to withstand a certain heat from the outside so it would also contain the rather small energy of battery used inside:

      A close up shows that the antennas on top of the aircraft are not located inside the burnt skin.

      That pictures shows something else. The skin is just burnt on one side of the aircraft and the it is nearly restricted to the area of the crew rest compartment: My guess is an upright wall separates the unused crew compartment so just one side of the aircraft was affected.

      I have already read that Ethiopian doesn’t use a crew rest compartment but the space is still there. A burning cigarette by a crew member up in the crew rest compartment therefore is not possible. A burning cigarette in a lavatory below is still possible. The flames went up and that’s all.

      • mhalblaub :
        I doubt it was the ELT battery. The whole device is designed to withstand a certain heat from the outside so it would also contain the rather small energy of battery used inside:

        That is a very good point. I had not taken that into consideration. It will make it even more interesting to find out what the AAIB has to say about the ELT.

  33. I think it was a terrible mistake to allow the 787 to return to service with ETOPS 180 after the grounding. This thing should be flying over land only, and only within gliding distance of a diversion field.

    The nicest thing you can say about the 787’s electrical system is Boeing doesn’t understand it very well.

    If Laredo had happened above the arctic ocean, where 787s are now regularly in service, the plane would have been lost and they would not likely have recovered much to see what happened. If this ETH fire had happened one of their regular flights across Southern Sudan or The Congo jungles, what would have happened? Explosive decompression? Structural weakening? Could they have landed in time?

    I suspect a number of the diversions and emergency landings we’ve read about may have been very minor incidents that wouldn’t have forced a 777 to land. But Boeing and the carriers are being extremely careful – they are still testing this aircraft, whether or not the passengers know it.

  34. Which other Aircrafts use the same type ELT? Moreover
    I hope that the Doors emergency opening supporting system (wick contain a battery) will be not next puzzle to solve about fires on the 787.

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