At hearing, NTSB grills Boeing and FAA on 787s

The Boeing Co. assumed during the 787 certification process that a short circuit in one of the jet’s two batteries wouldn’t result in smoke and flames.

Why that assumption was wrong, and why federal aviation officials signed off on the 787’s lithium-ion battery system design, are the subject of a two-day hearing before the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C.

“We are looking for lessons learned, not just for the design and certification of the failed battery but also for knowledge that can be applied to emerging technologies going forward,” Deborah Hersman, chairman of the NTSB, said at the beginning of Tuesday’s session. That said, Hersman and other NTSB officials were pointed in their questions of Boeing and the FAA.

The hearing continues Wednesday and comes as 300 Boeing employees around the world work to retrofit 787s with a redesigned battery system. The Federal Aviation Administration signed off on that new system Friday, essentially clearing the 787 to return to passenger service after a three-month grounding.

But while the FAA approved Boeing’s redesigned lithium-ion battery system, NTSB investigators have yet to find the cause of a Jan. 7 battery failure aboard a 787 parked in Boston. NTSB investigators have said the battery short-circuited, causing it to smoke and burn.

When the 787 system was first conceived, Boeing and battery-maker GS Yuasa were less concerned with short-circuiting than with overcharging. They deemed short-circuiting unlikely over the life of the 787 fleet.

“Our belief … was that any form of internal short circuit could lead to venting of that cell and release of the electrolyte but nothing more than that,” testified Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s chief engineer for the 787.

Boeing calculated that the odds of a battery spilling flammable fluid, which occurred in the Boston incident, was one in 1 billion. The odds of a less-severe failure in which a battery overheated and emitted smoke or gas was one in 10 million, Boeing determined.

The model had less than 52,000 hours of fleet-wide flying time when the Jan. 7 short circuit took place. That event was followed by a Jan. 16 incident in Japan involving a 787 operated by All Nippon Airways.

Steve Boyd, manager of the FAA’s airplane and flight crew interface branch, declined to speculate how dangerous the Jan. 7 battery failure would have been to the aircraft had it been in flight and not parked.

“I don’t know how to make that judgment,” Boyd said. “It’s difficult for us to extrapolate from that event.”

Boyd voiced confidence in Boeing’s test process, in which FAA specialists were involved. That testing included shooting a nail into a lithium-ion battery to simulate a short circuit. The battery didn’t burn in that test.

“We believed Boeing’s approach was a reasonable approach to show compliance,” Boyd said.

A 2009 fire at a company that made components for the lithium-ion batteries was caused by an internal short circuit, the same circumstance that triggered a January fire that led to the plane’s grounding.

Details of thate fire at a plant in Arizona were contained in records released Tuesday as the NTSB opened the hearing.

After the 2009 fire at Securaplane Technologies, a division of Christchurch, England-based Meggitt, Boeing made several design changes to the battery to ensure it couldn’t be recharged too quickly, according to the NTSB documents. The aircraft manufacturer didn’t alter its assumption that an internal short-circuit couldn’t trigger a fire.

Boeing conducted “state-of-the-art” testing of the Dreamliner and its battery system, Sinnett said.

In light of the two battery failures, “I think we may apply tighter test criteria,” he said.

Other certification issues that might arise at the hearing include the battery’s standards, set by the FAA, and Boeing’s use of its own employees to sign off on some of the initial FAA certification tests. The FAA allows engineers from aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing to sign off on designs because the agency lacks the resources and expertise. The agency retains the final authority to approve designs.

A panel of government and industry experts, including FAA and Boeing representatives, devised more rigorous testing standards for lithium-ion batteries in 2008, according to safety board documents. Those standards weren’t applied to the 787 because the FAA had already set conditions on its batteries, according to the documents.

The FAA didn’t update battery requirements after the new standards were written because it didn’t believe that the 787’s battery was unsafe, Ali Bahrami, manager of the agency’s Transport Airplane Directorate, said at the hearing.

Boeing has more than 800 orders for the mostly composite 787. Company officials said last week they still plan to boost production on the 787 to a pace of 10 jets monthly by the end of 2013. Boeing reports first-quarter earnings on Wednesday.

Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

More in Herald Business Journal

Health-care consumers need to take the lead, so get smart

David Russian, CEO of Western Washington Medical Group, writes our third essay about fixing health care.

More business, more competition for Everett kidney dialysis center

Nonprofit Puget Sound Kidney Centers sees large for-profit competitors enter state market.

Boeing makes investments in future of autonomous flight

“We believe these are … technology enablers that could change the future of aviation.”

Behavioral economics still requires some development

It promises a better understanding of human decision making and a better economic model.

Molina Medical holds fall carnival for families in Everett

Molina Medical is hosting a free event for families in the Everett… Continue reading

Leadership Snohomish County celebrates 20 years of service

Leadership Snohomish County is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The organization was launched… Continue reading

Snohomish, Monroe manufacturers honored for innovation, excellence

Two Snohomish County companies have been honored with Manufacturing Excellence awards at… Continue reading

Remodeled home tours planned this weekend

This weekend, Edmonds-based Chermak Construction will participate in the 2017 Remodeled Homes… Continue reading

Barron Heating to celebrate anniversary at Marysville showroom

Barron Heating and Air Conditioning is celebrating its 45th anniversary from 10… Continue reading

Most Read