Monday, March 25, 2013

ZA272 test flight starts Boeing on the road to 787 return to flight

Boeing conducted the first of 2 (expected) test flights to return the 787 to service.  This afternoon's test flight was FCF (functional check flight) meant to verify the normal operation of the aircraft's systems including the problematic lithium ion batteries.  The flight lasted 2 hours and 9 minutes and Boeing reported that the flight went according to plan.  This was the first flight of the revamped lithium ion containment system and was performed on ZA272 (LN 86, SP-LRC) which will be ultimately be delivered to LOT Polish Airlines.

Boeing will analyze the flight test data and expects to conduct the one and only certification test flight using the same aircraft in the next few days with FAA personnel on board to observe the test.  Further, according to the Wall Street Journal, Boeing will ground test the lithium ion batteries on board ZA005 (LN 5, N787FT), which is also equipped with the new containment system, to failure in order to ensure that the containment system works as advertised.  Even though Boeing has said that they will fly only one certification test flights, the FAA may require that Boeing fly more certification test flights as they deem necessary. 

Boeing is still very confident of the system they have designed that they have not slowed down 787 production and anticipate resuming production flight tests in the very near future though I don't know when that will be.  It would certainly take place after Boeing fixes the 50 787s already delivered before retrofitting them on the aircraft on flightline's at Charleston and Everett.  It would probably take Boeing at least 2 months to return all the 50 787s to flight once FAA approval (as well as approval of the other global aviation authorities).  The Japanese aviation authorities (and others) may ask Boeing to carry out further tests to satisfy their own requirements thus delaying the resumption of service of the fleet of 787s outside of the United States.

Even though Boeing doesn't discuss their testing schedules, I do expect that if there are no issues from the data of this test flight that the certification test flight should occur by Friday or Saturday at the latest.

Currently, Boeing has 27 completed 787s awaiting delivery.  21 are at Everett and 6 are in storage in Charleston.  They're still adding one aircraft per week.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Boeing expects a couple of weeks to finish certification testing of 787 battery fix

Boeing is expecting a pretty short testing period for their proposed battery fix though the FAA could mandate more tests.  Boeing needs to conduct only one test flight with the proposed fix on ZA272 (LN 86, SP-LRC).  ZA005 (LN 5, N787FT) will conduct ground tests of the fix. Both aircraft are in the process of being retrofitted with the battery fix.  Boeing has told me that it takes about 4 to 5 days to remove the old lithium ion battery set up and install the new battery assembly for both the main and APU battery. Boeing has declined to reveal how many ground and flight test hours will be needed to finish testing though Ron Hinderberger, Boeing Vice President, 787-8 Engineering says the current plan calls for only one test flight of the upgrade system on ZA272.  The total ground and flight tests should be no more than a couple of weeks though the FAA can mandate additional testing.  It is the FAA who will the final say in this matter. Boeing is pretty confident of the fix because of the testing and work performed in their integrated systems labs but many of these test will have to be re-performed under the oversight of the FAA.  Boeing said that about 1/3 of the required FAA testing is already completed.

Once the FAA has given it's sign off then Boeing will act aggressively to get the fix installed on the 50 787s that currently in customer hands.  I would expect that there will be multiple Boeing teams at different locations working concurrently to do the retrofit which, as mentioned earlier, will take 4 to 5 days per airplane.

Much has been made that the root cause of the battery incidents has not been discovered and that Boeing and the FAA are rushing this.  However, there is precedent for this type of actions since the evidence pointing to the root cause was probably destroyed.  When TWA Flight 800 exploded of Long Island's South Shore there were many theories that abounded but the NTSB pinned the blame on fuel vapors in the center wing fuel tank that were ignited by a spark.  There was no direct evidence of that but the result of their findings was that the FAA required some sort of fuel inerting systems to be retrofitted and that new aircraft designs have a an inerting system designed into the center wing fuel tank.  All this on an aircraft accident that did not have a root cause.  Here Boeing is taking action that would address any potential failures in the battery and severely mitigate the risk f a fire from ever happening by siphoning off any oxygen surrounding the battery.

Thus with its reputation out on the line, Boeing Commercial Airplane Head, Ray Conner and Chief Engineer, Mike Sinnett explained, in detail, Boeing's proposed solution and why they have confidence in it. The briefing in Tokyo was very technical in nature and very through.  Here Boeing revealed that they expect that they can be done testing and start implementation of the fix in weeks and not in months.  They qualified those remarks by stating that the FAA has the final say in lifting the airworthiness directive that lead to the grounding.  One bit of news that is interesting is that Boeing will not lose the 180 ETOPS certification once the FAA has signed off on the fix.  They still intend to achieve ETOPS 330 for the 787 though it is uncertain if the FAA will add any more tests for that certification because of the battery issues.

Boeing is rumored to already be producing parts for the retrofit on the 50 aircraft that are in customer hands as well as the 25 siting at Charleston and Everett as well as the aircraft that are in various stages of production.  If Boeing can meet the schedule it has laid out to the FAA and get the testing done in weeks, I would expect the FA to take it's time in analyzing the data and perhaps ordering further tests.  The 50 787s may not resume passenger flights for another 4 to 6 weeks (that includes the retrofit time).  Deliveries probably will resume around the end of May but it ll depends on the FAA and how stringent they plan on being.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

FAA approves Boeing's 787 recovery plan

Today the FAA announced that they approved of Boeing's re-certification plan for the lithium ion batteries made by GS Yuasa of Japan.  The FAA will be looking over Boeing's shoulder every step of the way. This is obviously in reaction to the criticism that the agency received in light of the certification of the 787 and the lithium ion batteries in particular.

Boeing will be using two airframes to conduct the tests: ZA005 (LN 5, N787FT) and ZA272 (LN 86, SP-LRC) a 787 that is destined for LOT Polish Airlines.  I do expect that test flights should start by Thursday, Friday at the absolute latest.  Boeing has approval to conduct the flights on only two 787s and they may need to conduct more test flights if the FAA says they need more data.

There is no word on how long the re-certification program will take but it will encompass both ground and flight tests.  Boeing gave a very detailed plan and the FAA has given their feedback in terms of the parameters and tests that have to be met in order for the the lifting of the airworthiness directive.

To be sure this plan will probably take some time to complete to the FAA's satisfaction and because of all the negative publicity surrounding the battery and the FAA's oversight I wouldn't be surprised if the testing and reviews takes up to two months before the airworthiness directive is lifted. 
Additionally, when the NTSB came out with their preliminary results of the fire investigation on the JAL 787 in Boston, they announced that they will have two hearings in April, one covering the use of lithium ion batteries and one covering the design and certification of the 78 battery system.  You can be sure that both Boeing and the FAA will get a lot of heat at both these hearings and will certainly increase the pressure on both organizations. You can access the JAL 787 docket here.

So what does this mean for the resumption of flights and deliveries.  Assuming that the FAA is happy with the testing and the results, I can see revenue flights starting again in about 2 months time.  That would be around the middle of May.  Boeing has already been producing the necessary kits for the battery modifications though I'm not sure how long it wold take to modify the aircraft.  The modifications does involve cutting a vent hole in the CRFP skin of the aircraft.  Additionally Boeing will have to modify the 25 (and counting) 787s at Everett and Charleston as well retrofit those that are further back in the production backlog.  Once the undelivered aircraft have been retrofitted they can resume the standard ground and flight test regime that Boeing and customers put each airframe through before the aircraft is formally handed over.  I can see deliveries resuming around the middle of June though I cannot venture a guess as to how many they will be able to deliver.  Boeing will have its work cut out for it if they are to deliver more than 60 787s this year.  They would need to deliver 10/month in order to accomplish that.  It's doable but will require a lot of resources to decrease the built up inventory being stored.

Here's Boeing's statement from this afternoon:

Boeing Receives FAA Approval of Certification Plan for 787 Battery Solution

EVERETT, Wash., March 12, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- Boeing (NYSE: BA) has received approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the company's plan to test and certify improvements to the 787's battery system. Successful completion of each step within the plan will result in the FAA's approval to resume commercial 787 flights.

"Our top priority is the integrity of our products and the safety of the passengers and crews who fly on them," said Boeing Chairman, President and CEO Jim McNerney. "Our team has been working around the clock to understand the issues and develop a solution based on extensive analysis and testing following the events that occurred in January. Today's approval from the FAA is a critical and welcome milestone toward getting the fleet flying again and continuing to deliver on the promise of the 787," he said.  
Ray Conner, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said that the company's focus has been on developing a permanent resolution.

"Working with internal and external experts in battery technology, we have proposed a comprehensive set of solutions designed to significantly minimize the potential for battery failure while ensuring that no battery event affects the continued safe operation of the airplane," said Conner.

"Our proposal includes three layers of improvements. First, we've improved design features of the battery to prevent faults from occurring and to isolate any that do. Second, we've enhanced production, operating and testing processes to ensure the highest levels of quality and performance of the battery and its components. Third, in the unlikely event of a battery failure, we've introduced a new enclosure system that will keep any level of battery overheating from affecting the airplane or being noticed by passengers," Conner said.
Design feature improvements for the battery include the addition of new thermal and electrical insulation materials and other changes. The enhanced production and testing processes include more stringent screening of battery cells prior to battery assembly. Operational improvements focus on tightening of the system's voltage range. A key feature of the new enclosure is that it ensures that no fire can develop in the enclosure or in the battery. Additional details of the new design will be provided by Boeing in the days ahead.

Boeing made its certification plan proposal to the FAA in late February. Today the agency agreed that the proposed changes and the detailed test plans address the conditions that resulted in the suspension of 787 operations.

The FAA also granted Boeing permission to begin flight test activities on two airplanes: line number 86, which will conduct tests to demonstrate that the comprehensive set of solutions work as intended in flight and on the ground; and ZA005, which is scheduled to conduct engine improvement tests unrelated to the battery issue. Additional testing may be scheduled as needed.

The certification plan calls for a series of tests that show how the improved battery system will perform in normal and abnormal conditions. The test plans were written based on the FAA's standards as well as applicable guidelines published by the Radio Technical Commission on Aeronautics (RTCA), an advisory committee that provides recommendations on ways to meet regulatory requirements. The RTCA guidelines were not available when the original 787 battery certification plan was developed. 
"We have a great deal of confidence in our solution set and the process for certifying it," said Conner. "Before 787s return to commercial service, our customers and their passengers want assurance that the improvements being introduced will make this great airplane even better. That's what this test program will do."
The FAA also released the following:

Press Release – FAA Approves Boeing 787 Certification Plan

For Immediate Release

March 12, 2013
Contact: Laura J. Brown
Phone: (202) 267-3455

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today approved the Boeing Commercial Airplane Company's certification plan for the redesigned 787 battery system, after thoroughly reviewing Boeing’s proposed modifications and the company’s plan to demonstrate that the system will meet FAA requirements. The certification plan is the first step in the process to evaluate the 787’s return to flight and requires Boeing to conduct extensive testing and analysis to demonstrate compliance with the applicable safety regulations and special conditions.

“This comprehensive series of tests will show us whether the proposed battery improvements will work as designed,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We won’t allow the plane to return to service unless we’re satisfied that the new design ensures the safety of the aircraft and its passengers.”

The battery system improvements include a redesign of the internal battery components to minimize initiation of a short circuit within the battery, better insulation of the cells and the addition of a new containment and venting system.

“We are confident the plan we approved today includes all the right elements to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the battery system redesign,” said FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta. “Today’s announcement starts a testing process which will demonstrate whether the proposed fix will work as designed.”

The certification plan requires a series of tests which must be passed before the 787 could return to service. The plan establishes specific pass/fail criteria, defines the parameters that should be measured, prescribes the test methodology and specifies the test setup and design. FAA engineers will be present for the testing and will be closely involved in all aspects of the process.

The FAA also has approved limited test flights for two aircraft. These aircraft will have the prototype versions of the new containment system installed. The purpose of the flight tests will be to validate the aircraft instrumentation for the battery and battery enclosure testing in addition to product improvements for other systems.

The FAA will approve the redesign only if the company successfully completes all required tests and analysis to demonstrate the new design complies with FAA requirements. The FAA’s January 16, 2013 airworthiness directive, which required operators to temporarily cease 787 operations, is still in effect, and the FAA is continuing its comprehensive review of the 787 design, production and manufacturing process.
Already the FAA is confident of the plan that Boeing submitted and the FAA approved thus the stakes are being set with a lot on the line with regards to the re-certification program.  Boeing and the FAA cannot afford to get this wrong.