Imagine you are Michael P Huerta, head of the FAA.
Boeing comes to you and says ‘Well, we don’t yet know what caused the two battery fires that we earlier promised you were impossible and would never occur, but don’t worry about that, because, well, because they’re impossible and will never occur (again). Now, time is passing and we need to start flying our planes again, so we’ve given up on finding the problem. Instead, we’ve solved it, whatever it is. We’ve come up with a new design for the battery, and most importantly, in case another one of those impossible-to-occur fires should happen, we’ve put the battery in a box so the rest of the plane doesn’t also burn then crash. So, can we start flying the planes again?’
Actually, you don’t have to imagine much at all, because that’s more or less where we’re at currently.
Now, for the bit you’ll like. You get to pretend to be the head of the FAA. You reply to Boeing ‘Why, yes, sure, of course you can start flying your planes again. As I said, before I then said you couldn’t fly them, I have total confidence in the 787. But, just to confirm that the problem, which you say you haven’t identified but have solved, has gone away, would you mind doing some test flights to prove that all’s now okay.’
The Boeing rep says ‘Thanks a lot, Mike. Ummm – how many test flights do you want us to conduct? You know, what with the price of jet fuel these days, and of course with the sequestration, it will cost you more to oversee more test flights, so for your sake, we’re hoping to keep the number of test flights – which are surely unnecessary anyway, because these fires are impossible-to-occur – down as low as possible. How many do we need to do?’
So, now for your big reply.
How many test flights do you insist on? How many different planes do you require to participate in the testing? How many hours should each flight average?
Oh, and also, while you’re setting the testing terms to Boeing, do you require them to actually create a third one of these impossible-to-occur fires so as to prove their battery box safely contains (or vents to the outside of the plane) the intense heat, smoke, and flames? Do you require them to do this with just one of the two battery boxes in each plane, with both battery boxes, or do you not require that at all.
Can you guess what the actual answers are?
The number of test flights required : One. Not one thousand. Not one hundred. Not even ten. You are only requiring one test flight to ‘prove’ that a problem which hasn’t been identified and which ‘only’ happens once every 29,000 flight hours, has now been solved.
We don’t know how long the one flight will be, but we’ll guess it to be less than 29,000 hours in duration. More likely a brief 2 – 4 hours. And probably none of that time will be spent over the isolated Pacific, five and a half hours from everywhere, which is how Boeing wants to be allowed to operate its 787s in the future.
And as for actually recreating a battery fire? That’s not required at all. Apparently the absolutely critical last line of defense battery box, while doubtless undergoing tests on the ground, will not be required to prove its operation in a real airplane, flying at 580 mph at 35,000 ft, and continuing to safely fly for some hours after the battery fire occurs.
Okay, enough of pretending to be Michael P Huerta. You can be yourself now. But please, answer one more question.
Do you feel this is an adequate and fair testing protocol to prove the absolute guaranteed safety of the batteries on the 787?
I was astonished by this single flight requirement, and couldn’t believe it. So on Tuesday I wrote to Loretta Gunter, Boeing’s 787 program spokeswoman, asking her :
I’ve been reading about the extended (ground) testing of the 787 batteries, but have somehow formed the sense that your flight testing of your proposed solution is limited to a single flight.
Could you please advise :
How many flights the testing of the new battery solution will span
How many hours in the air in total
How many planes in the testing program
If you could also advise any details of what will be tested in the air, that would be appreciated.
In particular, can you please advise if you will create a battery fire while the plane is airborne, in both battery compartments, so as to ascertain the efficacy of the containment process in real life?
Her reply didn’t specifically address my points, but confirmed the one-flight only procedure :
We will conduct a single flight test to demonstrate normal operating conditions of the new battery system in conjunction with the other airplane systems. All other testing is on the ground where conditions can be better controlled and monitored. This is typical of testing regimes – flight testing is a very small part of the testing that we do. Our testing meets all federal regulatory requirements and is based on the standards published by RTCA.
On Wednesday rumors appeared that Boeing might actually double the in-flight testing, all the way up to two flights. Now if we could just get them to add two zeroes to the number two. And actually test some batteries to destruction.
The problem is that Boeing doesn’t yet know what has caused the battery problem, and if their on-the-ground testing doesn’t help them recreate the problem, surely the next step is not to say ‘Oh, bother, we can’t find out what the problem is, so we give up’. Surely the next step is to start testing on a real live plane.
Who knows what of the environmental variables that exist on a plane flying at almost the speed of sound, 7 miles above the earth, with unusual environmental settings for pressure and humidity and vibration, might not impact on the batteries. Who knows about what strange unexpected modulations are being pulsed along the power and control lines between the battery, its charging and controlling systems, and all the other electronics on the plane during the plane’s actual in-flight operation.
And seeing as how Boeing’s ultimate solution is to allow the battery to burn again in the future, but to ‘safely’ contain the burning super-heated battery in a box, shouldn’t we be testing the box’s ability to do exactly that – on a plane – too?
One last question. Why is Congress so silent on the 787 saga? Do they have no opinions? We can usually count on the usual suspects to happily express outrage any time the TSA are accused of something, rightly or wrongly, but why does not a single one of our 535 Congressmen, 100 Senators, or even VP and President have anything to say about the 787 problem?