LOT Polish Airways 787 expected to make test flight Tuesday

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by GLENN FARLEY / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @GlennFarley

KING5.com

Posted on March 16, 2013 at 6:08 PM

SEATTLE - A 787 built for LOT Polish Airways is expected to be the first flight test to verify the system, to prove to the FAA that Boeing's upgraded battery is safe.

Two months ago on the evening of January 16, the FAA announced it would immediately ground the 787 fleet.   That was the day of a second 787 lithium-ion battery incident, when the forward battery aboard an All Nippon Airways jet started smoking while on a domestic flight in Japan.  That incident came just nine days after a 787 battery in the rear of the plane smoked and caught fire while on the ground following a flight from Tokyo to Boston.

Early on, it was unclear if the battery incidents were caused by a defect in the battery, or the batteries overheated as a result of something else in the electrical system.  After two months of investigation by the transportation safety boards of the United States and Japan, the batteries are now considered the source of the failure, but the exact cause has still not been determined.

On Friday morning in Tokyo / Thursday evening in the U.S.  a Boeing team led by Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner held a news conference and briefing in Japan that officially stated what changes the company would  make to the battery, along with a backup system consisting of a stainless steel enclosure for the battery that would prevent any fire, and vent any smoke directly outside the bottom of the airplane through a one inch diameter titanium tube.

Now, KING 5 News has learned that the first flight test to verify the system is expected to take off from Everett's Paine Field on Tuesday, followed by an official flight test for the FAA to demonstrate the system's performance.

The airplane being used for flight testing is built for LOT Polish Airlines, which as the first operator of the Dreamliner in Europe. LOT was hoping the plane would lead the carrier into a position of profitability.

LOT suffered embarrassment at Chicago's O'Hare airport on the night of the grounding as the airline was celebrating the start of Dreamliner service between Chicago and Warsaw.   The inbound 787 from Warsaw never made the return flight and is still stuck at the airport two months later.  The carrier says it's using leased Boeing 767s in the meantime. 

Boeing says it plans to wrap up ground and flight tests by no later than the end of March, and then it's up to the FAA to certify the plane is again safe to fly, or request further changes and testing.

 "I think by June we should be in good shape," said Michel Merluzeau, the managing partner and analyst for G2 Solutions in Kirkland.  

"We're definitely on track to witness a return to service by summer," he added, noting that Boeing's solution appears comprehensive.  If the FAA approves Boeing's plan quickly, flights could resume sooner.

Boeing's chief project engineer for the 787 says the company's three step approach to the batteries covers all the potential causes for concern, even if the entire battery was involved in a so called  thermal runaway.  Smoke and electrolyte would be ejected from the plane preventing any damage to the aircraft or injuries to passengers and crew.  The company says because of that, knowing the root cause of the two battery incidents is not critical.

Boeing's plan includes stress testing of battery cells to keep any defective cells from being installed in the battery.   Each of the 787s' batteries contains eight cells.  The cells are also having a phenolic-glass material installed between cells to prevent any heat transfer should one cell fail.  There are other wiring and charging precautions, in addition to the stainless steel enclosure and venting system.

 While the FAA's order only legally affected U.S. Carriers, that being United Airlines as the only domestic 787 operator, international aviation regulators quickly followed, extending the ground world wide. 

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