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August 14, 2009

Another "Wrinkle" in the Dreamliner

Dreamliner_model_dt  
If nothing else, the Dreamliner makes a good model

Photo: 1yen on Creative Commons


by Clive Irving

Pity the poor Boeing test pilots, all suited up and nowhere to go. Sitting out on the tarmac at Everett, Washington, the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner looks sleek, every inch the airliner of the future it is supposed to be. So far, though, all it has been able to do is to roll up and down the runway under low engine power. At least we know the wheels turn. As for actually leaving the ground, don't hold your breath.

That was supposed to happen at the end of July. At the last minute the first test flight was canceled--and no new date set. The 787 was grounded because of structural faults found where the wings meet the fuselage. Now it is revealed, in today's Seattle Times, that a section of the fuselage just behind the wings has flaws.

As is so often the case with the 787, this new problem only became public well after its discovery. Transparency isn't part of Boeings management philosophy. The major problem with the wing involved two Japanese subcontractors, Mitsubishi and Fuji. This new glitch involves an Italian company, Alenia, which manufactures sections of the fuselage--called barrels--using composites. On June 23 Boeing issued a stop-work order on the Alenia barrels.

The problem in Italy involves a part of the structure called stringers--stringers are also involved in the wing weakness. This time wrong-sized stringers have been found to cause the outer skin of the fuselage to wrinkle under stress, such as when the airplane lands. Boeing is keen to play down this problem, saying that a solution is already designed and will be executed swiftly.

Nonetheless this greatly adds to the already substantial evidence that when Boeing decided to build the 787 using a far larger proportion of composites than ever before they did so without understanding how these materials behave when subjected to the stresses of flight.

Indeed, when the wing flaws came to light it seemed at first that they showed up in tests only at an extreme level of stress--150 per cent of what could be expected in flight. Now it has been revealed that the wings failed under stresses much closer to actual flight conditions.

Boeing has said that the new date for the 787's first flight will be announced near the end of September. Few experts believe that that will happen until next year. In the meantime, the test pilots can do other stuff. Many of the advanced new systems in the 787 apparently work just fine, as do the engines. It's just that, as it is, the 787 is in no state to leave the ground.

Further reading:
* The Dreamliner Problem Gets Worse (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* Is the Dreamliner in Real Trouble?(Daily Traveler on CNT)
* What is Wrong with the Dreamliner? (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* Boeing's Dreamliner Debacle (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* Read The Daily Beast for more aviation expertise from Clive Irving, Condé Nast Traveler's senior consulting editor.
* On the Fly: The Daily Traveler on the airline industry

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