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NTSB versus Boeing


There was a dust-up last week between the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Boeing over the Japan Airlines 787 battery fire in Boston.

NTSB said that during Boeing’s March 15 press briefing on the company’s comprehensive battery fix for the 787, Boeing executives improperly offered conclusions about the Jan. 7 fire aboard a parked aircraft. The board said such conclusions should be left only to NTSB to express during an ongoing investigation. Also, any technical briefing touching on an incident subject to an ongoing NTSB probe should be cleared in advance with NTSB, the board said.

Beyond Boeing perhaps going outside NTSB’s rules for a party to an investigation, I believe the heart of the dispute is a difference of opinion that has been simmering below the surface throughout NTSB’s investigation of the Jan. 7 incident. Boeing appears to believe the Boston event was largely contained and did not pose a serious threat to the rest of the aircraft while NTSB believes the fire was on the verge of spreading out of control and did pose a serious threat to the rest of the aircraft.

Boeing VP and 787 chief project engineer Mike Sinnett’s slides from the March 15 briefing include one that notes that in the Boston incident “no major airplane structure was damaged” and there was just “minor damage within 20 inches of battery.” The fire, he said, was limited to “two three inch flames.” Ultimately, all “airplane systems functioned as intended,” he said.

Contrast that with NTSB’s interim report on the Japan Airlines incident describing how difficult it was for firefighters to put out the lithium ion battery fire, based on direct reports from the firefighters: The fire “appeared to be rekindling” even as measures were being taken to control it. A firefighter “reported that the battery was emitting white smoke, creating heavy smoke conditions,” NTSB said, adding that the firefighter “also reported that the battery was hissing loudly and that liquid was flowing down the sides of the battery case.” One firefighter “received a burn on his neck when the battery, in his words, ‘exploded,’” NTSB said.

Sinnett and NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman also are in conflict on a key point. While he said the 787’s systems “functioned as intended” in the Boston incident, she has said the fire event “should not happen as far as the design of the aircraft. There are multiple systems that are in place to prevent [a battery failure from escalating to a serious event]. Those systems did not work.”

This split is worth noting as NTSB’s probe of the Boston incident continues and Boeing endeavors to convince FAA to lift the 787 grounding.

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