April 29, 2013
A November 2006 fire that destroyed a 10,000-sq.-ft. Securaplane Technologies building in Tucson, Ariz., sent Boeing and its team back to the drawing board to reevaluate whether its chosen battery, chemistry and safety systems for the 787 were up to the job.
Securaplane, the battery-charging system contractor, had been testing a first-generation GS-Yuasa lithium-ion battery, which failed, causing the fire.
More than six years and several more battery incidents and fixes later, Boeing has constructed an increasingly comprehensive and complex mechanical and software safety net around the battery to protect the aircraft from any lurking “unknown unknowns.” What has remained the same is Boeing's commitment to the size, weight and energy-density advantages of lithium-ion batteries with cobalt-coated cathodes.
The NTSB questioned Boeing and the FAA about that troubled path to certification during an investigative hearing April 23-24, part of its continuing probe into the failed-battery incident on a Japan Airlines 787 in January.
The review was not meant to find the root cause of the failure, which continues to elude investigators, but to understand why the FAA-approved special certification conditions for the battery did not prevent the failure. Also on the agenda was whether FAA's delegation of authority to Boeing prevented the regulator from being close enough to testing the special conditions.
The FAA and Boeing rigorously defended both the certification and delegation of responsibility, saying the special conditions were “robust enough” and that delegation is the only way the agency can keep pace with technology. “One thing we can't do is wait until we know everything before we field a new technology,” says Steve Boyd, manager of the FAA's airplane and flight-crew interface branch.
Given its limited manpower, the FAA largely depends on authorized representatives (AR) to develop test plans and to witness tests. ARs work for companies which, like Boeing, have been granted organization designation authorization (ODA) by the agency. Doug Lane, the director of regulatory administration for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, says there are 950 people in the program, about two-thirds of whom were working full-time as ARs during the regulations compliance phase of the 787 certification program. The FAA, in contrast, had the equivalent of about 40 full-time engineers on the 787 program, with an average of 30 years of experience in the group.