New details on 787 fire, but little headway in inquiry

  • New York Times
  • March 7, 2013 - 9:06 PM

The first report of a possible fire came from a cleaning worker just minutes after the passengers and crew had left a Boeing 787 jet that had landed shortly before at Logan Airport in Boston. A cleaning worker noticed “an electrical burning smell and smoke” in the back of the cabin, according to a report released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

A mechanic then saw and smelled smoke there before seeing two flames about 3 inches long at the front of the case holding the plane’s lithium-ion battery in the electronics bay.

Other managers reported smoke in the nearly empty passenger cabin that was “intense” and “caustic smelling” before summoning firefighters, who found “a white glow with radiant heat waves” coming from the battery, the report said.

The battery was also hissing loudly and leaking liquids and seemed to be reigniting. Standard fire suppressants had little effect, the report said, and a fire captain’s neck was burned, he said, when the battery “exploded.”

The new details about the fire were in a preliminary report that indicates that the board has still not made much progress in figuring out why a battery in the new Boeing 787 jet parked at the airport burst into flame Jan. 7.

The report echoed statements by Deborah A.P. Hersman, the board’s chairwoman, who told reporters last month that the problems seemed to have originated in the battery, when one of the eight cells had a short circuit and the fire spread to the rest of the cells.

While the safety board plans to continue its investigation, it said it would also hold a hearing on the hazards of the new lithium-ion batteries next month.

The 48-page report and nearly 500 pages of supporting materials added a few technical details about the condition of the charred battery, even if they did not advance efforts to pinpoint the cause of the fire.

The incident was the first sign of trouble with the volatile new batteries on the 787. The planes were grounded worldwide nine days later after another 787 made an emergency landing in Japan when the pilots smelled smoke.

Over the past two weeks, Boeing has told the U.S. government that it had identified the most likely ways in which the batteries could fail, and it proposed several fixes. Boeing contends the changes would minimize the odds of incidents and protect the plane and its passengers if a problem did arise. The safety board released its report a day after federal officials said the Federal Aviation Administration was close to approving tests of Boeing’s approach to fixing the batteries on its 787 jets, and the tests could begin next week.

The FAA could still demand changes in Boeing’s proposed battery design if problems develop in the laboratory and flight tests, which will take several weeks. But the decision to start the tests will be a major step in Boeing’s efforts to get the jets back in the air. They have been grounded since mid-January.

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