About Those 787 Problems

787, Boeing

It has not been a good few weeks for the 787 program. There have been fires, fuel leaks, and more to make for a very eventful month, and not in a good way. So is this airplane doomed to disaster? No. It is just having teething problems, like every airplane before it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t concerns to be had about what’s happened, especially electrical ones.

787 Battery

You don’t remember them years and years later, but pretty much every airplane has had its share of problems when it first gets introduced. How about the 747? Its inaugural on Pan Am was delayed for hours on end when it had an engine problem. (The early Pratt engines were nothing but trouble.) The only reason it was delayed a matter of hours and not more was because there was another aircraft that they could push into service.

But these teething problems pale in comparison to the airplane with the worst of all teething problems – the Comet. When the de Havilland Comet was introduced as the first viable commercial jet, it was a marvel. Unfortunately, the designers didn’t quite understand metal fatigue well enough. The repeated pressurization cycles exposed weak spots in the airframe that simply gave out. Airplanes started to drop out of the sky.

For the 747, it took some time but reliability became less of an issue and now its early problems are just a footnote. For the Comet, despite a major redesign, it was easily surpassed by the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 and the airplane, not its problems, became a footnote in history.

So what is happening with the 787? Are these normal teething problems or is it the end of the world? It will be much easier to answer that question in 20 years, but I have to assume that it’s likely to be the former.

The incidents we’ve seen so far have been covered widely by the media and it may very well scare travelers from booking on a 787 for awhile. But the problems we’ve seen so far have been far from the major disasters we saw with the Comet or even with the DC-10 (American flight 191). Even though the American 191 issue was maintenance-related, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) briefly grounded the airplane and the public became incredibly nervous. Still, the DC-10 went on to be quite successful.

With the 787, the incidents have been less dramatic so far. We’ve seen failed generators, brake problems, a fuel leak, and more. But if anything should be more troubling, it’s the electrical issues. There have been a few reports of improper wiring and other electrical issues. The JAL 787 that had a battery fire on the ground is possibly the most nerve-wracking.

After landing in Boston, a JAL 787 had a battery that powers the auxiliary power unit (APU) catch on fire. While the APU is primarily used on the ground, that doesn’t mean that the battery couldn’t catch fire in the air. It is a lithium ion battery, and that has long been known to pose a fire safety risk. For that reason, there were a ton of extra safety precautions taken with these batteries before they were allowed on the 787, but it didn’t take long for one to catch on fire. Just think what could have happened if this happened over the ocean.

Boeing says that had the fire happened in flight, it would have been contained within the compartment where it was located. That may be the case, but I don’t know anyone who would be comfortable having a fire onboard an aircraft while over the middle of the ocean. Lithium ion batteries are great because of their efficiency at providing energy but they are also less stable than other options. That has already been proven with this fire.

The good news is that these incidents have caught a lot of regulatory attention. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has, as always, initiated an investigation. Meanwhile, the FAA is doing a very thorough review of the electrical systems on the airplane. Japan’s regulatory agency is looking into it as well. When this is all done, there will undoubtedly be some changes to the airplane. Every aircraft goes through changes. If you look at the number of Airworthiness Directives issues by the feds, you would be amazed.

What’s the bottom line here? Well, there are definitely some concerns, that’s for sure. You might hear a lot of saber-rattling by the airlines. That is probably more about trying to get compensation from Boeing along with a quick fix to avoid reliability problems than it is lack of faith in the airplane’s future. And the regulatory agencies are now going to be looking VERY closely over the airplane to make sure it’s safe so that’s good.

In the end, we’re going to end up with a very safe airplane. But for now, there is at the very least, a strong concern about reliability. If travelers decide to book away from the 787 until that gets sorted out, it wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve had similar thoughts. But eventually, this will all get ironed out and all will be good. It’s just a matter of how long it will take to get there.

[Original battery/sign icons via Shutterstock]

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38 comments on “About Those 787 Problems

  1. There is good reason to be concerned about the electrical issue. I suspect the underlying issue is that the 787’s electrical system is huge compared to any other civilian aircraft. A 777’s electrical system is powered by 2 120 KVA alternators, a total of 240KVA plus APU (I don’t know the ratings on the APU alternator). That is substantial, but pales compared to the 787, which has a pair of 225KVA units on EACH engine. The APU has another pair of 225KVA units. That’s equivalent to a generator powered by a 1800 hp Diesel Engine. In terrestrial systems, weight is almost never an issue, so systems can be over engineered to make them extremely robust. Do that with an aircraft and if you are lucky it will never carry a commercial payload, if you are unlucky, it will be too heavy to leave the ground.

    In Aircraft design there is always a delicate balance between safety and risk. I suspect Boeing has strayed a little too far to the risk side. Those problems are probably already being addressed, and we will see changes in the aircraft electrical system to make it more robust (no doubt at cost of several hundred pounds in weight). My guess is within a year, these issues will be a memory. If they aren’t, they will be the least of Boeing’s Problems.

    An interesting comment appeared in Aviation Weekly & Space Technology recently. Even with the reported problems, the mechanical dispatch reliability of the 787 is about the same as it was for the 777-200 at this point in the life of the program. What is different is the advance PR for the 787 has gotten the aircraft a whole more attention and visibility than previous Boeing aircraft.

    As Cranky points out, it only takes one really good accident to pretty much destroy the reputation of an aircraft.

  2. CF,

    Excellent post and kudos to you for drawing the analogy to the 747 inaugural and the problems experienced then.

    The news media and the youngun’s posting about this over on the boards over on A*net make it seem like the 787’s problems are unprecedented.

    It isn’t.

    Incidentally, I just recently learned that the DC-6 also had issues when it was introduced. Apparently, the press was hysterical about that, too!

    And the Lockheed Constellation when new was even grounded in the wake of a crash. See: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=eQcRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=zJMDAAAAIBAJ&dq=lockheed-constellation&pg=3758%2C1980418


  3. Here is my question…

    These quotes below are from a CBS Money Watch report, dated today, Tuesday, at 8:51 am.


    Boeing also replaced traditional hydraulic systems with electrical ones, and those require a lot of electricity.

    “The systems are all electric, and Boeing’s design priority on the 787 — aside from safety — was to have a system that could generate enough electricity,” Norris said. “This thing produces as much as electricity as a small village; you could power 400 houses or thereabouts just with electricity generated on this airplane.”

    What are the tradeoffs between hydraulic and electrical systems in the 787 ?

    How much weight savings are we talking about ?

    1. Peter – I wish I knew the details on this one, but I don’t. Hopefully another commenter will have more info. But I would assume that the weight savings are substantial since hydraulics can be heavy. Hydraulics were traditionally used because they are mechanical. You move fluid around to force the movements you need to occur. But in more recent airplanes, the control column wasn’t directly connected to the hydraulics anyway. (The the whole “fly by wire” thing.) So now they’ve just taken that one step further.

    1. The A380 losing an engine is a completely different ball of wax.

      The Airbus vs. Boeing control systems have quite a bit of difference. There are adherents to both camps but as I understand it Boeing basically uses the electronic wires to replace hydraulics or control cabling: (like the kind you use to actuate brakes on your bicycle.) So while there are electronics between the pilot an the control surfaces if the pilot issues a command/moves the yoke, the control surfaces follow, its just that her commands are being carried by electrons instead of hydraulic fluid.

      Airbus puts a computer between the pilot’s inputs and the control surfaces. So a pilot can pull up, and the airplane control surfaces in some cases won’t follow the command.

      There’s long long debates about this, but there are merits to both designs, and both are very thoroughly tested. I’d expect the Boeing has data and testing that shows that electronic systems are as reliable if not moreso than hydraulic systems.

  4. So if the engines fail and the batteries are in flames, the all-electric control systems run on what? Maybe the 787 Nightmare needs some high-tech wind-mill farms deployed across its stylish wings. Maybe the chicken-wire replacing its Faraday-cage aluminum fuselage could induce power backup if it happened to get hit by lightning at the time.

    1. MonkeeRench – I know you’re joking about the wind farm, but there is one! It’s called the Ram Air Turbine (RAT) and it deploys if all else fails.

      1. Evan, the one major commercial airplane that doesn’t have a Ram Air Turbine is the 737. I was chatting with a few Boeing engineers and when hydraulic power goes out, it is upto the pilots to physically heave through the direct interlinks that they’re already using. (e.g. Its like manual versus power steering.)

    1. DaveB – That’s a long time from now, so I would think that they’ll have either cleared the airplane of any problems or will have fixed them by then.

  5. The DC-10 had a lot wrong with it that wasn’t maintenance related. Remember the United crash in Iowa when an engine failure took out all the hydraulics due to poor design of back up system placement? It’s successor, the MD-11, had a wing design that was a compromise to save money. Google the accidents on that plane. Yipes!

    1. I thought that the issue with the MD-11 was that McDD decreased the static margin (distance between the center of gravity and the aerodynamic center) of the aircraft so as to reduce trim drag at cruise by flying at a lower angle of attack. Reducing the trim drag then results in lower fuel burn/more range. The downside of reducing static margin is that the aircraft is less inherently stable and therefore a little trickier to handle manually. In fighter terms, this is generally referred to as neutral or relaxed stability and is sought after as a way to improve maneuverability, but is well compensated for by the flight control system.

      1. LT this is ringing a bell from my ground school, airplanes generally have three stability modes:
        Positive Stability – If you let go of the controls the airplane will gravitate toward level flight. This is akin to dropping a marble into an upright bowl, it’ll always find its way to the middle

        Neutral Stability – If you let the go of the controls the airplane will continue on whatever direction it was already on. This is akin to dropping a marble on a flat table.

        Negative Stability – If you let go of the controls the airplane will tend toward more eratic flight. This is akin to dropping a marble on an upside-down bowl.

        Fighter jets have negative stability, Cesnas and the like have very strong positive stability.. I think commercial airliners generally have positive stability, but I’m sure it varies by airplane.

  6. The first of anything will have issues, but for some reason the media loves to blast anything to do with air travel.

    Like anything, the manufacture can do all the testing they want, but until the product gets used in the real world on a daily bases, you are not going to find all the bugs until them like what is happenin with the 787.

    1. All stories like air travel & the flu PANDEMIC are easy targets for the media as there intent is to instill anger, fear or anxiety. As a result, they miss what’s really importent. Thankfully Cranky gives a degree of clarity to aviation news & gives it an interesting & informitive twist.

  7. antiquated technology that should have been trashed decades ago…..50 years ago you could fly from NYC to LA in 5-6 hours…..50 years later the same thing……

  8. My phrase, exactly: “Teething Problems.” They are an expected part of normal and I have every confidence in this (787) airplane. Boeing does not take short cuts, nor do their operators. The FAA and now the NTSB are participating, bit good things. Fact remains, the 787 is a well designed airplane and it will be with us for a long time, despite a few bumps. Would I fly on the 787 tomorrow? Yes, and without reservation. Boeing does not release airplanes with issues and they monitor the performance of EACH 787, through every hour of flight, fleet-wide. Normal, expected teething problems; no less, but also, no more.

  9. And now it’s grounded in Japan. I hope they don’t ground it in the US, because I’m flying one tonight (UA1121 if anyone else is onboard).

  10. Just announced that all 787’s are grounded here in the US. Good. I could be in the minority but I say ground them until they make changes which improves the track record.

  11. The examples cited of teething problems (and you could have included the Qantas A380 incident as well) show that there is a systemic risk involved in new aircraft introduction.

    That is, the inspection/certification process does not pick up all the faults, and these are caught up in-service.

    One could minimise this risk by requiring more stringent testing – but that would make the planes more expensive and longer to commission. That would put up airfares. My guess is that most people would choose the cheaper fare over the safer plane (whatever they might actually say, when it comes down to giving over the credit card number, saving a few dollars is what they actually do). In other words, government regulators and airlines have adopted a risk management approach which balances the likelihood of minor problems against the cost of more stringent regulation. A reasonable approach – as long as the rest of us understand that getting into a new model aircraft is a tiny bit more risky than getting into a new aircraft from a model that has been in production for four or five years and had the bugs removed.

    There is a rule of thumb that there is a serious incident for every one hundred minor ones. Most of the introductory incidents are minor.

    Personally, I avoid flying in either really old aircraft, or really new models until they have flown for a few years to get the bugs out.

  12. After the two UPS incidents and there were several passenger cabin incidents also that I currently can not recover. I concluded that the best course of action is to put the burning lithium in a bucket of water so as to cool it.Laptops are small enough. Perhaps the most knowledge of lithium combustion resides in DOE and Pantex, but would they share? In the late 1960’s when the titanium compressor fire occurred at the NASA Lewis Research Center many gurus agreed that much remained to be learned relating to the combustion of metals.

  13. I agree that these are all just teething problems. Look at any new product or technology. Apple had iPhones start on fire and look how popular they are now. Car manufacturers are always issuing recalls of one type or another, even years after production.

    I realize aircraft issues are somewhat more tenuous but issues are to be expected. The fact that the FAA and Boeing agreed that a resolution needs to be found should be all the comfort people need. They are committed to getting it right, and they will get it right. In the short term it will hurt them a little, but in the long term we will all be better off for the technology revolution that the 787 is bringing about.

    Let’s be honest, the vast majority of people have no idea what type of plane they are flying on so it likely won’t matter in the future. Right now it is something special but once there are hundreds out there and they are in a regular rotation many people won’t know if they are on a 787, 777, 767, 757, or even an A350 for that matter. They may notice it is nice and new, but they will have no idea that these problems occurred, or at least they will have forgotten.

    Remember most of the people on this site are aviation types who care about stuff like aircraft model. The majority of the public can’t tell the difference and won’t really care.

  14. The Flexing of those wings, and the fuselage getting cracks in it, could turn into another Comet disaster, What could be causing the cracks, is the weight of those wings really ending up splitting the Fuselage in Two due to the flexing of those wings, flexing over 26 feet. Another factor is the Freeze-Thaw effect, as that plane takes off at ground level 95 degrees and can fly as high as 55,000 feet (88 below 0) The testing on the Pilings was between 32 degrees and 72 degrees. When you see this plane fly, the Wings almost form a “U”, remember it only caused one small crack to bring down 4 Comets. Batteries give off Hydrogen Gas, I hope they are vented.

  15. The Flexing of those wings, and the fuselage getting cracks in it, could turn into another Comet disaster, What could be causing the cracks, is the weight of those wings really ending up splitting the Fuselage in Two due to the flexing of those wings, flexing over 26 feet. Another factor is the Freeze-Thaw effect, as that plane takes off at ground level 95 degrees and can fly as high as 55,000 feet (88 below 0) The testing on the Pilings was between 32 degrees and 72 degrees.

    1. I’m quite sure that Boeing and the FAA did this testing.. Testing on the pilings on the ground I’m sure wasn’t the full length, but they’ve done thousands of hours of flying. Boeing and their wing manufacturer employ engineers that are quite able to work through this kindof thing.

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