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A fire Monday aboard a Boeing Co. 787 parked in Boston prompted an investigation by aviation officials and was followed by a 2 percent drop in the company’s stock price.
Flames about two feet high shot out of an avionics compartment in the jet’s belly, and there was a small explosion afterward, Massachusetts Port Authority Fire Chief Robert Donahue said. No passengers were aboard the Japan Airlines 787, which had just arrived at a Logan International Airport gate from Tokyo.
The fire is the latest in a series of recent electrical incidents involving Boeing’s new plane. Last month, a failed generator forced an emergency landing of a United Airlines 787.
Investors on Wall Street apparently were rattled by news of the 787 fire. When the New York Stock Exchange closed Monday, Boeing shares were down $1.56 to $76.13 — a 2 percent loss.
Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney had called the 787’s previous electrical and other problems “normal introductory squawks” for a new plane. But Carter Leake, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets in Richmond, Va., said Monday that the glitches must be seen as far more serious after the Boston incident.
“Anything that involves a fire does not get the luxury of being called a teething problem,” Leake said. “Boeing needs to get ahead of this quickly, because now you run the risk of getting into a passenger aversion issue.”
Fire crews using infrared equipment found flames in a small compartment in the plane’s belly and had the fire out in about 20 minutes, the airport fire chief said. There was a flare-up later when a battery exploded, he added. The fire began in a battery pack for the 787’s auxiliary power unit, which runs the jet’s electrical systems when it’s not getting power from its engines — typically when the plane is on the ground.
“Something caused this battery pack to overheat, ignite,” Donahue said, adding that it’s too soon to know the cause.
The 787 is Boeing’s most electric aircraft. The Dreamliner uses electric power from six generators rather than “bleeding” air from the engines to power a hydraulic system.
The Dreamliner uses two lithium-ion batteries — including one for the auxiliary power unit, according to a Boeing guide for firefighters dealing with the 787. When Boeing proposed using the batteries in the 787, the Federal Aviation Administration issued special rules, including a requirement that they be designed to prevent overheating.
The FAA noted in the 2007 rule that, “In general, lithium ion batteries are significantly more susceptible to internal failures that can result in self-sustaining increases in temperature and pressure… The metallic lithium can ignite, resulting in a self-sustaining fire or explosion.”
One firefighter was evaluated for skin irritation, but there were no injuries, Donahue said. Airport firefighters had trained with Boeing on the Dreamliner, which familiarized them with the plane and made their work more efficient, he said.
Boeing’s mostly composite 787 entered commercial service in late 2011. Since then, the aircraft has been plagued with problems, including engine and generator troubles and fuel leaks. After the emergency landing of a United 787 last month, Qatar Airways grounded a 787 after that aircraft exhibited problems similar to that of United’s.
During a 2010 test flight, debris in a 787’s electrical panel sparked a fire. Boeing had to delay first delivery of the Dreamliner by several months to redesign parts of the system.
Leake, the BB&T analyst, said a connection between Monday’s incident and previous faults would mean that “the ante has been upped.”
“The system should always be designed to isolate, and you should never generate enough heat for a fire,” said Leake.
Japan Airlines said it delayed Monday’s return flight to Tokyo, which had been scheduled for noon Boston time.
Recent 787 ‘squawks’
January 2013: After a flight from Tokyo to Boston, an avionics panel catches fire on a Japan Airlines 787 that is parked at a gate. After the fire is extinguished, a battery explodes.
December 2012: A failed generator forces a United Airlines 787 to make an emergency landing in New Orleans. Another United 787 and two Qatar Airways 787s are inspected for electrical problems.
September 2012: The FAA calls for frequent inspections of General Electric engines on 787s after cracks are found in the engines of two planes. One of those 787 engines had sparked a fire in July during a taxi test in South Carolina.
July 2012: All Nippon Airways halts 787 flights to inspect for corrosion of Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.
February 2012: Boeing inspects 787s for defects in tail sections.
November 2010: A fire breaks out in the electrical bay of a 787 during a test flight, and a company investigation delays the first deliveries of the plane.
Source: Herald archive