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Updated Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 06:28 AM

787 faces extensive tests to return to air, FAA chief says

By Dominic Gates
Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta said Wednesday that Boeing won’t get its 787 Dreamliners back into passenger service without extensive testing and recertification of its proposed fix for the jet’s lithium-ion battery problem.

In testimony before a congressional subcommittee, Huerta said he expects a report from his technical staff next week that will offer an assessment of the fix Boeing formally proposed last Friday.

But he said FAA approval for Boeing to develop its fix will only be the start.

“Once we approve the plan, then we have to go through the process of actually implementing the plan, which will involve a great deal of testing, a great deal of further analysis and re-engineering before these planes are back in the air,” Huerta said.

He did not cite any potential time frame, but the requirement for extensive testing, analysis and re-engineering suggests at least weeks of work after Boeing gets the green light to proceed.

That means it’s unlikely the 787s could be flying passengers again any sooner than late April or May.

Speaking to the House aviation subcommittee, Huerta spoke mostly on the impact of the pending budget sequestration, but added remarks on the 787 in response to questions from ranking Democrat Rep. Rick Larsen of Lake Stevens.

Huerta said even though GS Yuasa of Japan manufactured the battery to a design by French subcontractor Thales, now “Boeing is stepping in and in this review assuming responsibility for the design and for the testing” of a revamped battery system.

“That is something we need to review and ultimately certify,” Huerta said.

He said Boeing has proposed a “comprehensive plan” to cover “a handful of potential areas of probable cause,” all of which are within the battery.

He said Boeing’s proposed fixes provide mitigation of the impact of any overheating of the battery at three levels: re-engineering of the design to reduce the possibility of a cell overheating; other measures to stop any overheating in a single cell from spreading to adjacent cells; and design changes to contain any battery-wide incident so that the airplane is not endangered.

“Any re-engineering and how it gets built is yet to be worked out,” Huerta said.

His description of Boeing’s proposed fix is in line with the details provided by multiple sources, which include: monitoring of voltage and temperature within individual cells; more thermal separation between cells; a stronger battery-containment box; and a better venting system to ensure flammable vapors go directly out of the airplane.

Earlier this month, the FAA granted Boeing permission to fly two flight tests to gather data needed for its proposed fix.

Huerta said Boeing hasn’t yet requested any additional test flights.

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com



FAA chief Michael Huerta




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