Lithium-ion batteries for the Boeing 787 came with risks that the company may not have anticipated.
The US aviation authority has outed a whistleblower who raised the alarm about what he felt were flaws in the lightning protection system on the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” passenger jet.
The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) released documents following a freedom of information request, but failed to fully redact the name of the whistleblower in the papers. As a result, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit was able to track him down.
We are releasing the files, correctly redacted, and are protecting the whistleblower’s identity at his request. He declined to be interviewed for this article. The FAA also declined to comment.
Read original documents here:
The former Boeing engineer sent documents to the FAA to support his allegations just two days after the 787 made its first ever commercial flight for Japanese airline ANA. He later wrote to Senator Patty Murray, who represents Washington state, in April 2012, alerting her to what he claimed were “lightning strike safety violations on the 787 Dreamliners”.
He warned that Boeing was “making lethal 787 flying passenger airplanes with scant regard to passengers’ safety”, and had failed to recognise a safety flaw, failed to implement a solution to it, and had used “fraudulent documents” and “illegal data representations” in testing.
Experts, managers and engineers who sign off the fraudulent documents simply lost their ingenuity, credibility, and integrity in its entirety.
“Experts, managers and engineers who sign off the fraudulent documents simply lost their ingenuity, credibility, and integrity in its entirety. They did so to support the ill-devised dictum of [Boeing] management,” he said.
“As an engineer, I cannot allow this deliberate aversion to passenger safety.”
Both Boeing and the FAA investigated the allegations and concluded there was no problem. The whistleblower lost his job at Boeing. After receiving the letter, Senator Murray wrote to the FAA, who told her “no unsafe condition exists and the Boeing 787 design is in compliance” with regulations.
With a fuselage made from a composite material known as carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP), the 787 presented a particular challenge to engineers seeking to protect the “Dreamliner” from lightning strikes.
Older passenger planes are built with metals that can conduct the electricity from a lightning strike around the fuselage, protecting the fuel tanks from any sparks or flames. Carbon fibre does not conduct electricity as easily and so presents a complicated engineering challenge.
From the moment it was first announced in 2003, there was concern about protecting the Boeing 787 from a lighting strike. By 2006, the Seattle Times was reporting that a “top safety-engineering team” had expressed “serious concern” about the issue. Senior engineers wrote in an internal review that, “it cannot be shown that the current wing-lightning-protection approach will preclude ignition sources in the fuel tank”.
A year later, another Boeing whistleblower appeared in a television special presented by Dan Rather, expressing a number of safety concerns, including lightning protection. Boeing rejected his allegations.
Al Jazeera has now found another engineer who voiced his concerns as late as 2012, after the FAA had approved the Boeing 787 and after it had begun making regular commercial flights.
Lightning protection on the 787 also presented a challenge for FAA specialists, who decided in 2009 to loosen their traditional regulations and replace them with a one-off rule – what they call a “special condition”. FAA documents from two years earlier, released to Al Jazeera, reveal officials were struggling to come up with a solution.
FAA engineer Mike Dostert, who works on fuel tank regulations, wrote in October 2007 that, “we do not know what rules will ultimately be applied to lightning protection on the 787”.
The FAA’s special condition ultimately required Boeing to prove that the chance of a Dreamliner crash from a lightning strike was “extremely improbable”, defined as one catastrophic failure in every one billion flight hours, a one-in-a-billion chance.
The same standard was applied to the lithium-ion battery designed for use in the “Dreamliner”. That failed twice in two weeks, leading to a grounding in January 2013. The Boeing 787 fleet had flown just 52,000 hours, leading observers to note that was a one-in-52,000 chance and far short of the stated probability.
However, Boeing had greater success with its lightning protection design than the lithium-ion battery. The FAA approved the 787 for flight in 2011 and since then 787s have survived a number of lightning strikes.
The solution was to embed a wire mesh within the composite fuselage, which conducts any electrical charge away from the fuel tanks, which it supplemented with a number of other safety features.
Boeing told Al Jazeera the 787 was designed with special lightning protections and meets all FAA requirements.
“The 787 during flight test and since beginning commercial operations has been involved in a number of lightning strikes [as would any airplane], and those protections have worked as designed.”