Boeing 787 Dreamliner Needs Fire Suppression


Recent fires, short circuits and thermal runaways of Boeing 787 Lithium Ion batteries demonstrate that Boeing’s choice of this technology was misplaced and it is a life threatening hazard that affects all Dreamliners.

The Wolk Law Firm handled a UPS Boeing 747 crash, an almost new airplane, where it is said that a thermal runaway of lithium ion battery cargo caused the aircraft to catch fire, the crew to lose control and crash. It turned out that there was insufficient oxygen for the crew to survive in the smoke and heat, there were no smoke hoods provided as standard equipment to allow the crew to see instruments obscured by acrid smoke, and but for two hand held fire extinguishers nothing was available to put out the blaze. Indeed even had the crew been able to apply the contents of the fire extinguishers directly to the battery fire, it would have been useless.

In fact on all passenger and cargo airliners nothing but the cargo compartments and engines are protected from fires and none of the systems will put out a lithium ion battery fire. Even though the FAA knew that two large Lithium Ion batteries were to be used in the Boeing 787, it chose not to mandate that some extinguishing system be installed in the two bays, one in front and one in back in which they were installed. That was in spite of the fact that one such battery burned down the building of the company that designed the battery controls during certification.

The 787 is designed for more than 8000 mile flights much of that over water where there are no airports for emergency landings. With nothing to suppress the fire and no place to land, one needs no fertile imagination to understand that passengers and crews are at risk. In short if there is a fire over water everyone will likely perish. The Miracle on the Hudson was just that, a miracle, and landing in the mid Atlantic or Pacific in the middle of the night will not likely yield a similar outcome.

This is the same design philosophy that got Boeing in trouble for the errant rudder actuators in the Boeing 737. Instead of responding to the FAA’s concerns that there was only one actuator on such a large rudder, Boeing did a computation that satisfied the FAA that a malfunction might only occur only in one in a billion flights and thus was extremely remote. That computation satisfied the FAA but three fatal crashes later the rudder was required to be made “reliably redundant”. [read more]

The reason this design attitude and regulatory philosophy must end is simple.

First, it is immoral for any company to allow people to die from easily preventable crashes.

Second, Boeing (and now the world) know that Lithium Ion batteries are unsuitable, unreliable, unstable and unpredictable.

Third, Boeing knows (but the world does not) that there are no fire extinguishing systems where the system Lithium Ion batteries are located; thus a battery fire, in the avionics bay for example, is a crash waiting to happen.

Fourth, Boeing knows (but the world does not) that on all Boeing airplanes save the Fedex B-777, there are no effective fire fighting tools at all. Fedex developed its own system to put out fires in the B-777 that is the model for the aviation cargo industry. Only Fedex uses it.

Fifth, if a Dreamliner crashes because of a fire that was uncontained due to a battery fire, the Airbus A-350, a direct competitor, will take the orders and the jobs that go with it out of the country. Airbus’ suffer from the same lack of fire suppression design flaw so a fire aboard one of its aircraft will be just as disastrous.

Sixth, the unspeakable suffering hundreds of passengers and their families will endure is grotesque.

If there is a lesson to be learned from all of this, it is a simple one. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is without doubt a quantum leap in aviation economics. It flies further, cheaper and on less fuel than any comparable airliner. On the other hand, it was for Boeing too much to do at once. The carbon fiber technology for such a large aircraft built by Boeing was cutting edge, the engine technology was cutting edge, the offsets in so many disparate countries was cutting edge, the 8000 lb psi hydraulic system was new, the electric control systems were new, the use of non-bleed air pressurization and air conditioning were new. The wing design was new as were the manufacturing and production techniques.

Finished assemblies of the aircraft made in different countries were assembled and certification testing took place in the United States. Many of the early aircraft needed extensive modifications to meet certification requirements all of which normally is achieved before production ready assemblies and the complete aircraft are built.

All of this resulted in costly delays and the rush to production, certification and commencement of deliveries guaranteed that known but unaddressed issues would rear their ugly heads and cause a risk of disaster not only grounding. The Lithium Ion battery thermal runaway problem is said to have been known to Boeing years ago and recent reports reveal battery replacements on in service Dreamliner aircraft. The thermal runaway problem certainly should have been known since everyone knows that similar batteries used in computers and cell phones have all too frequently caught fire and two cargo-only B-747’s have already been brought down from Lithium Ion battery fires.

Make no mistake about it, as the United States’ largest exporter, Boeing will pass the FAA’s review quickly and with flying colors. The battery problem will be whitewashed and the politically motivated FAA will pronounce the Dreamliner a dream. Then the airplane will crash and everyone will publicly wring their hands and remonstrate that we must do better to make certain that this never happens again… that is until the next time. Every time a Dreamliner makes an emergency landing from fire or smoke from the Lithium Ion batteries it is an accident that just didn’t happen.

No one is talking about the utter absence of any meaningful fire suppression system for anything but the cargo holds and engines in this and other aircraft. The luggage may survive the fire but the passengers won’t.

My prediction, the FAA will do nothing, the NTSB will do nothing, Boeing will do nothing effective to solve the problem. The French are no better as similar whitewashes were and are the product of Airbus and DGAC (the French FAA) collaborations.

It is beyond comprehension that a United States manufacturer, one of the most innovative, technically competent, and possessed of manufacturing genius like Boeing would risk everything again by failing to equip its latest aircraft with a comprehensive fire suppression system. Like most of the world’s plane makers, if the Government doesn’t require it, it won’t get done.

My recommendation for passengers on this and every other commercial flight, carry on your own fire extinguisher.

Arthur Alan Wolk
February 3, 2013


About Airlaw

For more than 50 years, The Wolk Law Firm has concentrated its practice in the area of aviation law, with Arthur personally generating verdicts and settlements of more than a billion dollars during the last decade alone. He is known for obtaining and on appeal, holding, the largest verdicts for each type of air accident claim in recent aviation history.

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