It looks like Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner fleet, grounded worldwide for the past week, will stay grounded for some time.
National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Deborah Hersman said Thursday the agency has reached no conclusion so far on the cause of the fire aboard a 787 in Boston on Jan. 7.
But Hersman made clear the severity of the incident as she addressed the grounding of the Dreamliners.
“This is an unprecedented event. We are very concerned,” she told reporters at a news conference at the agency’s Washington, D.C., offices. “We do not expect to see fire events on an airplane. This is a very serious air safety event.”
Despite multiple redundant safety features built into the system by Boeing, “those systems did not work as intended,” Hersman said.
“We need to understand why,” she added.
An NTSB team has disassembled and scanned the battery that caught fire. Investigators determined that some internal short circuits had caused heating inside some of the battery cells. They found that the battery had suffered what’s called a “thermal runaway,” an uncontrolled overheating that spreads from cell to cell.
But they have not yet established the sequence of those events or whether either is the cause, or a symptom of what went wrong. Neither has the NTSB determined for sure whether the battery over-charged or if there could be internal manufacturing defects.
“We still have to figure out why those events occurred,” Hersman said.
Boeing on Thursday afternoon said it “has formed teams consisting of hundreds of engineering and technical experts who are working around the clock with the sole focus of resolving the issue and returning the 787 fleet to flight status.”
“The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority,” the Boeing statement added. “Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and their passengers.”
Tests ahead include a battery drawdown that will take a week. Hersman didn’t have an answer for how long the investigation might take to come to a conclusion on the cause of the fire.
“It’s really very hard to tell at this point,” Hersman said. “We have all hands on deck.”
The Federal Aviation Administration, not the NTSB, must determine if the 787 will remain grounded. But given the lack of progress and the dire warning about how serious this event was, the FAA may not be in a position to lift the grounding any time soon.
“We have not yet ruled anything out. There’s a lot more work to be done,” said Hersman.
The current Boeing 787 crisis began Jan. 7 when a small battery fire broke out aboard an empty Japan Airlines that half an hour earlier had landed at Boston’s Logan International after a 12 hour flight from Tokyo.
All 183 passengers and 11 crew members had left the airplane when a mechanic making routine maintenance checks detected smoke in the cabin.
Airport firefighters found a battery fire in the rear electronics bay, in the lower fuselage just behind the wing.
The jet was almost new, delivered to Japan Airlines only in December.
Afterwards, the blackened and burned-out battery was taken away for inspection by NTSB investigators.
Four days later, the FAA ordered a sweeping review of the 787’s safety, focused on the electrical systems and including a review of both the design and manufacturing processes.
At that stage, however, the Dreamliners were still flying.
The Japanese airlines grounded their airplanes last week, eight days after the first incident, and the Federal Aviation Administration followed suit, after a second 787 battery overheated, this time in flight.
An All Nippon Airways pilot was forced to make an emergency landing in western Japan when he received instrument warnings of an overheated battery and smelled a burning smell in the cockpit.
All 137 people on board evacuated down the emergency slides. No fire was found in the electronics bay but hot chemicals had sprayed out of the battery leaving a trail of dark residue across the compartment.
Although the aircraft was an older jet, delivered to All Nippon Airways a year earlier, the battery involved had been installed as a replacement in late October.
This time, the battery involved was in the forward electronics bay, behind and below the cockpit.
When the battery lid was removed, inside, it resembled the first battery, burned out and blackened.
The Japan Transport Safety Board is leading the investigation into the All Nippon Airways emergency.