Dreamliner's Nightmare

Article excerpt

Byline: Clive Irving

Boeing's new plane has airlines in a spin.

before the alarming emergency in Boston involving Boeing's 787 Dreamliner catching fire lies one far scarier moment--the closest call any jet can have. In November 2010, after a six-hour test flight, a 787 was on approach to the airport at Laredo, Texas. Suddenly an electrical fire broke out in the rear of the plane. The pilot found himself without his primary controls to fly down to a landing. The 787 and the 30 or so technicians and crew aboard were saved only by a last-resort device, a small turbine that drops below the fuselage to snatch power from the slipstream, working like a windmill. Even then, all aboard were evacuated on the runway by emergency slides--extremely rare for a test flight.

Boeing played down the seriousness of this episode as a problem that would be fixed. But it pinpointed a vulnerability unique to the 787. In other jets, the power for flight controls and other systems comes from the engines. In the 787, critical parts of the system depend on electrical power generated by equipment in two bays beneath the cabin. One of these bays was the origin of the fire in a Japan Airlines 787 while parked at a gate in Boston this week and of problems experienced by other 787 operators, including United Airlines and Qatar Airways.

Smoke and fire are an absolute no-no for airliners. Even on the ground they should be intolerable. So why did Boeing make the Dreamliner seemingly so dependent on having its own kind of in-flight electrical power plant?

In theory, the idea complemented the whole thrust of the airplane's ambition to be a greener, cleaner jet. Not calling on the engines for many of the systems meant both more efficient engines and lower-exhaust emissions. …