Making its first passenger flight in 2011, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has been fettered breathlessly by international media like CNN and The Telegraph as the future of flight. Carrying an estimated 250 travelers from Tokyo to Hong Kong via Japan’s All Nippon Airways, the 787 Dreamliner, boasting state-of-the-art design, an intuitive cockpit, innovative Head-Up Piloting Display and electronically dimmed windows, saves its best for last – upending 60 years of modern aviation with one revolutionary update: Use of composite materials like carbon fibre-reinforced polymers. Eschewing traditional aluminium parts for the wings and fuselage; all par course for Boeing’s “future of flight” aspiration but what they didn’t tell US Federal Aviation administrators is that they were doing away with another traditional hallmark of aviation safety as well – lightning protection.
“It appears FAA specialists believed Boeing’s design change failed to comply with Special Condition 25-414 SC, which requires Boeing to show that a fuel tank ignition would be extremely improbable,” – Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the U.S. House Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to the FAA administrator Stephen Dickson
During the second week of December 2019, concerns arose from the US Federal Aviation Administration engineers that Boeing 787 Dreamliner wing design changes and other assorted modifications, including the removal of copper foil from the wing, made the Boeing plane prone to damage from lightning strikes.
According to ScientificAmerican.com, the average commercial airplane is struck by lightning more than once per year. In fact, Edward J. Rupke, senior engineer at Lightning Technologies Inc explained that the aircraft can even trigger the lightning themselves simply by flying through a heavily charged cloud.
That said, in most instances, scientific principles meant that lightning, following the path of least resistance, is conducted across the aluminium surfaces of the aircraft away and around the vital components and then it exits into the atmosphere, having traversed the metal body of the plane harmlessly, leaving only some metal scoring and carbon in its wake.
In some rare instances, lightning strikes cause a lot more damage than anticipated and in 1967, it precipitated a fuel tank explosion which caused the deaths of everyone on-board, becoming a catalyst for vastly improved protection techniques and rigorous lightning safety certification. Now it appears that after over four decades of roughly incident-free flying (at least when it comes to lightning), Boeing is to cut a few corners, in the wake of a growing 737 Max debacle.
Boeing removed lightning protection features from 787
Peter DeFazio, chairman of the U.S. House Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has written in a public letter to the FAA administrator Stephen Dickson stating that, “It appears FAA specialists believed Boeing’s design change failed to comply with Special Condition 25-414 SC, which requires Boeing to show that a fuel tank ignition would be extremely improbable.”
With an aircraft as materially advanced as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, the propensity for lightning related damage increases with the lighter, stronger, carbon fibre-reinforced polymers since lightning does not conduct across its surface harmlessly as it does aluminium. According to The Seattle Times, “the problem arises from the fact that wing fasteners are no longer fault tolerant because of the removal of the copper foil indicating that 90% of the fasteners became a single point of failure with the potential to become an igniting point in the event of a lightning strike”.
DeFazio raised concerns back in November 2019 but Boeing had already made these modifications to the wing for at least 40 Dreamliners before FAA approval. Alarmingly, the design safety investigations were not the multinational corporation’s first run-in with authorities, and certainly not the last. Other issues included the 787’s defective oxygen systems and of the now widely publicised 737’s faulty flight-control systems.
Boeing’s Production Issues and Shortcuts
Boeing’s former quality control engineer, John Barnett told BBC that he had reported to the FAA that he had tested 300 new oxygen systems in 2017 and discovered a 25% failure rate. The Federal Aviation Administration however, eventually dismissed the complaint, following Boeing’s indication to fix the issue despite installing defective parts into the final assembly line of North Charleston in South Carolina. The 32 year veteran who had retired in 2017 also made allegations saying that scrap parts were installed on new aircraft as well, mirroring a New York Times investigative report in April this year that increased production output with unrealistic delivery deadlines had forced employees to disregard procedures which including tracking of parts for aircraft installation. In one incident, Boeing admitted in June that they had falsified several certificates of a 10 month old Boeing 787 Dreamliner delivered to Air Canada.
“What I witnessed firsthand, the chaos and the instability in the factory, is really unsettling to me as someone who’s been around aircraft their entire life,” – former Boeing employee turned whistleblower Pierson to NYT
The faulty Air Canada Dreamliner was flying from Vancouver to Narita when “the pilot [received] oil indicators from one of the engines,” forcing the flight to make an emergency diversion to Anchorage, Alaska, according to Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.
Failures of both regulator and manufacturer
Investigations expanded into the 787 Dreamliner after growing issues and multiple failures, two of them fatal, of the troubled 737 Max. Earlier this month, FAA head Steve Dickson and former Boeing employee turned whistleblower Edward Pierson was called before the House transportation committee to give testimony. The latter had raised concerns about Boeing’s 737 production as early as 2018.
Pilots involved in 737 Max crashes complained of having to struggle against Boeing’s faulty MCAS sensor system which repeatedly pushed the nose of the planes downward into a dive.
An internal FAA review followed the first 737 Max crash in 2018, predicting that the model had high likelihood of at least 15 future crashes stemming from the plane’s design flaws but it was allowed to continue operating until a second fatal crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019 which grounded the series.
Featuring higher humidity and cabin pressure, modern Boeing aircraft, designed for ever increasing operational distances minimises long haul physical discomfort like passenger fatigue, dry eyes and headaches by recreating an internal atmospheric altitude of 6,000ft which is 2,000ft lower than a standard flight.
With more room for overhead luggage and a palatial interior, Boeing planes like the 787 Dreamliner are more economical and 20% more fuel efficient than its similarly-sized counterparts – offering passengers significantly more travel options with fewer layovers through increased point-to-point routes; but these creature comforts should never come at the expense and sacrifice of safety or operating with the sole objective of generating profit at the expense of ethics.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was ousted yesterday 23 December 2019 in a move by members of the board to “restore confidence” following increasing pressure from regulators and the families of the victims of the company’s crashed 737 MAX planes. The FAA did not comment on Muilenburg’s departure.