Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Dreamliner Problems

DSC01438You must have heard about the two big developments in commercial passenger aircrafts in recent years. The first is the Airbus A380 which went into service in 2007. The other is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which went into service in 2011. One was designed to be the world’s largest, while the other focused on fuel efficiency.

The A380 suffered two mid-air engine explosions (although different engine types) so far.

We are not even through the first month of 2013, but it has proven to be extremely eventful for the 787 Dreamliner in just a little over one week..

  • 7 Jan 2013: An overheated battery started a fire on an empty JAL 787 parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport.
  • 8 Jan 2013: Fuel leak led to a JAL flight resulted in an aborted take-off out of Boston.
  • 9 Jan 2013: United Airlines 787 reported wiring problems in the same area as the battery fire of the JAL’s 787. Separately, an ANA flight was cancelled after computers incorrectly diagnosed a brake failure.
  • 11 Jan 2013: Cockpit window cracked, and another engine was found to have fuel leak.
  • 13 Jan 2013: JAL 787 was found to have 100 litres of fuel leaked (same aircraft as the 8 Jan incident, but a different leak).
  • 16 Jan 2013: Battery fire on an ANA 787 led to an emergency landing and passengers evacuated using emergency slides.

That’s not all the problems. On 4, 13 and 17 Dec 2012, electrical problems were reported in different Dreamliners. One had to make an emergency landing.

This seems to be a worrying trend with the Dreamliner. An article in The Guardian blames the problem on increased outsourcing and relaxing government oversight.

In its earlier years, a Wired article sparked some concern after an FAA document revealed how the plane’s data network integrates passenger entertainment systems with flight control and navigation systems. Boeing says the design is safe, because of air gaps and software firewalls. I hope it really is.

I think an area of concern for me is how complex systems nowadays require expert domain knowledge in so many diverse areas to work together tightly. In the past, flying just needed propulsion and flight control. Then avionics were added on to simplify flying, but the plane could still operate, fundamentally, even if the avionics had failed.

Today, a plane could not fly if… for example, its data network was down.

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