I remember the first time I heard of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. “Did you hear they’re making a new plane?” my mom said to me. “It’s made out of plastic.” At the time, I thought the idea was absurd and I wondered if my mom had either misread the article or if the article was inaccurate. Surely, I thought to myself, no one would actually make a plane out of plastic, right?
Well, I was wrong. The plane is indeed made out of plastic. Or, to be more precise, it’s made out of “composite materials,” which, in this case, means a carbon fiber reinforced polymer. To be exact, it’s the first plane to have a composite fuselage, composite wings, and composites in most of its airframe components. All this composite material makes it a lot lighter than it would be if it were made out of metal like a normal plane, which means that it’s more fuel efficient.
No doubt there are some people who go into paroxysms of joy at that last sentence. Fuel efficient! How delightful! Believe me, I’m all about saving money on fuel—one of the many reasons I refuse to drive a massive car is I don’t want to have to pay to fuel it up all the time—but there’s got to be a limit to this fuel efficiency obsession. In the case of the Boeing 787, it seems they’ve sacrificed safety at the expense of fuel efficiency. How, you may ask? Read on for my decidedly non-aerospace engineer opinion. In no particular order, I present you both actual and potential problems associated with this jet.
Actual or potential problem: Actual
Level of seriousness: Mild to moderate
Casualties: Thankfully, none
Status of problem: Resolved
Starting in 2013, Dreamliners were grounded due to battery fires stemming from the lithium ion batteries used in the planes. The problem first occurred on a plane that had flown into Boston from Japan in January 2013. No one was on board when ground workers saw smoke that was traced back to the plane’s lithium ion batteries. The next week, a similar incident happened in Japan—but during a flight. The plane was forced to make an emergency landing.
Now, one could argue this could happen on board any plane, right? There is merit to that argument, though I would like to point out that the Dreamliner is the first commercial jet to use these large lithium ion batteries—because they’re lower weight than the type of battery traditionally used in airplanes.
According to what I’ve read, the problem was due to poor manufacturing of the batteries that caused them to overheat. (Note that I’m not some battery or electrical expert and this is probably a gross oversimplification.) Also from what I’ve read, the problem seems to be fixed—for now. Remember, this battery was used solely to make the aircraft even lighter. Lithium ion batteries power computers and cell phones and have a history of overheating. It’s not the end of the world if my cell phone battery melted. I’d be angry but hopefully would be able to get a replacement for free. An overheated battery on something that’s flying hundreds of miles per hour over thirty thousand feet in the sky is a totally different issue. Allegedly, there have been no incidents since the Dreamliners were grounded and the fix implemented. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Mandatory electrical system restarts!
Actual or potential problem: Potential
Level of seriousness: Mild (if you’re sitting at the gate or slowly taxiing), would be severe mid-flight
Casualties: Not applicable since it’s never actually happened
Status of problem: Resolved?
Back in 2015, the FAA announced it had found a bug in the Dreamliner’s software system. This bug is triggered by the aircraft’s electrical generators. It can cause the electrical system to fail and if that happens, the pilots will lose control of the plane.
That’s pretty serious business, of course. And how do we prevent this bug? By rebooting the airplane every so often because the bug is triggered if the electrical generators have been powered on continuously for eight months. Apparently, it’s an integer overflow—I’m not a computer scientist so that means nothing to me, but I figured I’d include that here in case I have any computer scientist/programming types who read this blog.
Now, the good news is this was discovered and publicized before it actually happened. Kudos to the FAA (or whoever discovered it) for doing that. However, what worries me is making sure that people actually restart this thing. Here’s a random, brief digression explaining why I think that: At work, I’m in a quality assurance/internal control kind of role. And although my work does not relate to aircraft or aerospace in the slightest, one thing I’ve seen is how people are the weakest link. We’re all human and we all make mistakes. Well-designed internal controls will catch those mistakes before they become catastrophic. But, based on what I’ve read about airlines in the past decade, I’m not sure I actually trust these companies to have appropriate controls and procedures to make sure someone doesn’t forget to restart the Dreamliner, or say that they restarted it and not actually do it. Remember, United Airlines recently flew a plane that wasn’t airworthy on 23 domestic and international flights.
So yes, in a perfect world, this issue will not cause any problems. We live in the real world, though, and I’m not fully convinced that this problem isn’t going to resurface someday with disastrous consequences.
Mid-flight engine shutdowns!
Actual or potential problem: Actual
Level of seriousness: Severe
Casualties: None—the one incident resulted in the plane safely landing
Status of problem: Resolved
In 2016 (which was only last year!), the FAA ordered an urgent fix for certain aircraft engines on some Dreamliners. According to the FAA directive, ice shed from the fan blades can cause the blades to rub against the fan case, resulting in engine vibration and causing the engine to shut down. Fixing the problem involves using a fan grinding machine while the engine is still attached to the wing.
The scary thing about this issue is it actually happened. On January 29, 2016, a Dreamliner was flying at 20,000 feet when this problem occurred. One engine shut down and the pilots had to make an emergency landing using the other engine. I have no idea if it’s hard to fly with just one engine, but it sounds dangerous.
This problem affected 176 Dreamliners worldwide and from what I can tell, it’s been fixed. But still… I would not have wanted to be on that plane with the engine that shut down. Talk about scary!
Inaccurate airspeed readings!
Actual or potential problem: Actual
Level of seriousness: Severe to catastrophic
Status of problem: Unknown
The first half of 2016 was not a good time for the Boeing Dreamliner. In addition to the engine failure due to ice I talked about above, the FAA disclosed yet another potential problem with this aircraft: inaccurate airspeed readings. Pilots should avoid abrupt flight-control commands, the FAA said, because of unreliable airspeed indicators.
Now, people who are as (morbidly)
obsessed interested in air crashes will recall that inaccurate airspeed readings are what cause the crash of Air France Flight 447 on June 1, 2009. That plane, an Airbus A330 (the same plane I flew to Munich on my way to Russia that same year!), crashed due to ice crystals on the pitot tubes, which are used to measure airspeed. The plane crashed off the coast of Brazil and there were no survivors. So, airspeed is a pretty important thing to know accurately, which makes this problem very serious.
There were three reported incidents with the Dreamliner’s airspeed. Luckily, there were no crashes. Of all the problems I’ve researched so far, this one seems to have the least media coverage. I’m not sure if it’s been resolved or not, which isn’t very comforting to anyone flying on this plane!
Many potential problems with the “composite materials” used in construction!
If you’re like the average person, you probably haven’t heard of Vince Weldon. I hadn’t until I started researching material for this post a couple months ago. Weldon is a former engineer for Boeing. He was fired in 2006 after working for the company for 46 years. According to Boeing, he was fired for “threatening a supervisor.” According to Weldon, he was fired in retaliation for raising safety concerns about the Dreamliner—specifically, about the carbon fiber material used in its construction.
I’m no aerospace engineer, but I think Weldon makes some good, common sense points about the safety of the plane. According to him, the composite materials are not nearly as safe as aluminum because they can shatter too easily and burn with toxic fumes. Aluminum, by contrast, crumples on impact and will absorb some of the shock. (Anyone who’s seen a crumpled aluminum can or actually crumpled one themselves will understand this idea.)
Weldon also says that the composite material may not fare well when struck by lightning. Lightning strikes are relatively common—I’ve been in a plane that was struck by lightning—so this is a definite concern. Admittedly, a Dreamliner seems to have been struck by lightning back in 2014 and is fine.
Weldon went public with his concerns. Then he was fired. Coincidence? It could be—but then again, it also could not be.
As it turns out, Weldon isn’t the only one with concerns about this plastic plane. An old article from the Daily Mail over in the United Kingdom raises a few more potential problems. First, it’s unclear what to look for when the composite materials are damaged. Since inspectors have no experience looking at this material, they may not know what to look for. No one knows how risky dents to the aircraft are, either. Plus, the composite materials are prone to snapping under stress, whereas metal will bend or stretch.
What to do?
I acknowledge that there have been no fatal crashes (or crashes at all, if I’m not mistaken) involving the Dreamliner as of this writing. Some people who have flown in the plane have written rave reviews. Apparently the windows are pretty cool. Statistically speaking, it is quite safe. Air safety, especially in Western countries, is quite good. Odds are you’ll be fine if you fly the Dreamliner.
But honestly, even though I know all of that, I still wouldn’t feel safe flying in the thing. I just can’t get past that whole plastic problem. It’s a plastic plane, for goodness sakes! I want to fly in a nice metal plane, even if it’s old and ugly and beat up on the inside. It worries me that this plastic could be the way of the future. (Anything for fuel efficiency, remember?!) It’s probably going to take a really nasty crash to change people’s minds about this—and even then, I wouldn’t count on it because it seems like a ton of people lack critical thinking skills nowadays.
So I, for one, am going to do my best to avoid the Dreamliner. I’m not sure how easy this will be. I’m trying to remember a time when I know the model of plane I’ll be flying in before I actually book the tickets. I’ve never really paid attention to that before! I usually just try to get an aisle seat and then book the flight. I flew recently and my flights were booked through an agency and on the itinerary, I could see the planes I would be flying. (One of them was a particularly foul plane with actual propellers—I should tell that story on here sometime.) In the future, if I’m flying internationally, I’ll definitely try to see what plane I’ll be flying in, even if I have to call the airline. (That’s something I avoid at nearly all costs.)
I’m sure some people, like my friends, will think I’m paranoid about all of this. Maybe I am. But all the statistics in the world are cold comfort for people who die in air crashes. Just ask the families of the victims of Air France Flight 447 or Japan Airlines Flight 123, to name just two incidents.