Composite Safety and the 787

787, Safety/Security

Lots of big news this week. At 9a PT today, Southwest will announce what changes (if any) they’ll be making to their boarding process. I’ll write about that tomorrow. But for today, let’s focus on the 787, and the new claims that it is going to be unsafe.

Last night, Dan Rather had a special report on the safety of the 787. (Believe it or not, he’s still on TV. You just have to try hard to find him on HDNet.) The focus? A former Boeing employee is claiming that the composite materials being used on the plane aren’t as safe as the metal used on other planes. You can read a good summary of the interview in this Seattle Post-Intelligencer article. This is one that will inevitably get blown up to increase the scare factor, so let’s start with the facts here.

07_09_19 787safe

As I mentioned, all of the allegations come from the fact that the airplane is made from composites instead of metal. This is the first time the fuselage of an aircraft has been made from composites, but parts as large as the tail have been made of composites before. And the military has planes made from composites as well. Still, we don’t know nearly as much about composites as we do about metals, so there are questions to be answered. According to the former employee making these claims, here are the potential issues:

  • In an accident, the composite fuselage will shatter into a bunch of tiny pieces instead of staying together like metal. This will prevent people from being protected from fire for a few minutes as they are with metals, and it may mean they can’t get out in time to survive.
  • In an accident, the composites will create toxic fumes when they burn so people will die before they can escape to find fresh air.
  • The mesh used to conduct away lightning is “too light and vulnerable to hail damage,” so strikes could bring down the plane.
  • Lastly, there was just an overarching concern about composites being damaged in general. You can’t always detect composite damage with the naked eye so other tools need to be used, like ultrasound, to detect problems and those machines may not be readily available.

This employee was apparently “fired last year under disputed circumstances.” You can read the details in the article, but could it mean he’s just a disgruntled employee? Sure it could, but I don’t think that matters. It’s still a good special, (except for the reappearance of the perennially-wrongMary Schiavo. Ugh.) because this sort of questioning can only help in the long run.

The FAA is going to require that this plane meet the same standards of survivability that metal aircraft face, so we might as well get all of these issues out in the open before something bad happens. If this is a disgruntled employee and they aren’t really issues, that’s great. Tests will show that his concerns are unfounded and we can move on. If not, well, then Boeing is going to have to come up with some solutions here.

The thing I worry about most is that damage occurs to composites that can’t be seen with the naked eye. A lot of training and expensive equipment will be required for people to be able to identify that damage, and we must be really vigilant until we know more about how composites behave over long periods of time. Whenever you do something new like this, there’s always a learning curve, and we need to do whatever we can to make sure that learning curve doesn’t kill people.

I can’t help but think back to the introduction of the Comet, the first production jet aircraft, more than 50 years ago. That plane suffered multiple catastrophic failures in flight due to what was eventually determined to be metal fatigue. At the time, people just didn’t know the effect of pressurization on metal as well as they do now. The design of the windows left weak spots in the corners that ended up buckling in flight. They figured it out, but a lot of lives were lost.

I’m not suggesting that we’re going to see the same thing with the 787. I think it just underscores the idea that extreme testing that doesn’t end with the entry into service must be mandatory for an aircraft made differently than in the past. That’s why Boeing’s decision to have a truncated testing schedule in order to deliver the 787 on time seems highly suspicious to me. In a way, I really hope we have delays so that there is no rush get the airplane out there. Let’s make sure it’s safe.

If you’d like to watch the Dan Rather special, tune in to HDNet (if you can find it) over the next few days. It’s showing on “Dan Rather Reports.” For times, click here.

4 comments on “Composite Safety and the 787

  1. Not to be callous, but who cares what happens to the material in a crash? They are so darn rare that it just doesn’t matter from a practical standpoint. Besides, it’s not like ANY airplane has EVER been designed with “Crashworthiness” in mind. That’s a car thing, not a plane thing. No manufacturer that I know of has EVER made a claim of “crash survivability”, nor should they. It’s impossible to guarantee. That’s why the emphasis is (and should be) on AVOIDING crashes.

    And as far as the hail thing, that’s baloney. I’m sure they’ve fired projectiles at this thing that represent the 95th percentile hailstone and it was fine.

  2. Actually, I do believe that aircraft are designed with survivability in mind. While accidents are increasingly rare, they do happen and most tend to be survivable. Admittedly, it’s a VERY rare thing to even be in that circumstance in the first place.

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