High-tech Dreamliner grounded by small fire
It should have been a routine turnaround for a high-tech aircraft just weeks removed from its maiden flight. But cleaners smelled smoke, and a mechanic for Japan Airlines at Logan Airport soon discovered fire coming from a battery compartment in the underbelly of the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, officials said.
Though firefighters contained the small fire and it did not appear to cause significant damage, it knocked out Boston’s only nonstop flight to Asia Monday and sent ticketing agents scrambling to find alternatives for 176 stranded travelers, while Boeing and federal inspectors were en route to determine what went wrong with the $207 million Dreamliner.
The carbon-composite 787 has been closely watched through development and production. The first model went into service in Asia in 2011, while Japan Airlines debuted the 787 in the United States when it launched its daily nonstop between Boston and Tokyo last spring. The airline now has a small fleet of Dreamliners; the particular model that caught fire Monday had been tracked by aircraft junkies who circulated photos of it after a test flight in early December, noted its delivery just before Christmas, and followed its first passenger flight two weeks ago.
Though the Boston to Tokyo route accounted for less than 1 percent of Logan’s record 29 million passengers last year, it is viewed as a boost for the airport and regional economy. Because the Dreamliner is lighter and more fuel efficient than traditional midsized planes, it can travel on long-haul international routes previously plied by aircraft too big and heavy for Logan’s runways, and it holds the promise of more direct routes between Boston and distant locales.
The 186-seat flight to Tokyo has been popular, averaging about 150 passengers per trip. A spokeswoman for the airline said schedule juggling would allow service to and from Boston to resume Tuesday, though the Dreamliner with the fire was out of commission.
The Federal Aviation Administration is assisting the National Transportation Safety Board in reviewing the aircraft, which will not be released to Japan Airlines for repairs until the inspection is finished.
“Right now, we’re gathering facts,” NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said. “We’re waiting until our person on the ground takes a look at the airplane and looks at it closely, takes photos, and talks with the rest of the team back here at headquarters to determine what the next steps would be.”
Boeing has delivered 50 of the more than 800 Dreamliners ordered worldwide, after several years of design and production delays. Weiss said this is the first apparent 787 battery failure investigated by the NTSB, which is also investigating failure of a General Electric-built engine in a 787 during a taxi test last summer in South Carolina.
John Hansman, an MIT aeronautics professor, said it is not unusual for new airplane models to experience hiccups after introduction. The 787 could be more prone to problems because its design and technology are groundbreaking, he said.
The Dreamliner uses more electrical power and less fuel than other commercial airplanes, with electrical motors running the control surfaces, such as the flaps on the wings and tail, instead of hydraulic motors.
“The more complicated the airplane is, the more likely something slips through,” said Hansman. “The electrical system has been a challenge all through its development and design, because it was such a new and powerful system.”
A fire broke out in a power distribution panel during a 787 test flight in 2010, causing the plane to make an emergency landing in Texas, Hansman said. That panel was located in the rear electrical bay, the same area where the battery apparently exploded Tuesday.
Nearly nine months after Japan Airlines began its Boston nonstop flights, the smooth-nosed Dreamliner still turns heads at Logan.
Edward C. Freni, Massport’s aviation director, watched from his office window as this plane, tail number JA829J , touched down at 10 a.m. and pulled into gate E8A without incident at 10:05.
“There was no indication of smoke,” Freni said. “Normal landing, normal taxi.”
Disembarking passengers were equally unaware. “I didn’t smell anything,” said Yutaro Yamaguchi, a 16-year-old returning from Japan to boarding school in Maine after winter break. Other than a little turbulence, the flight was unremarkable, he said.
But cleaners during what should have been a two-hour turnaround soon smelled smoke, notifying a mechanic, Massport officials said.
The mechanic apparently traced the smoke to a unit that powers the plane when it is on the ground with the engines off, but was unable to extinguish it. Logan’s emergency operations center received a call about the fire at 10:37, and firefighters were on scene by 10:39, Massport officials said.
Massport Fire and Rescue used Halotron — a chemical used instead of water to combat fires on sensitive electronics — to fight the fire, and infrared thermal imaging equipment to hunt for any other problem spots beyond the compartment where it was contained, Chief Robert Donahue said.
“The fire was knocked down in about 20 minutes,” Donahue said. “We did have a flare-up; there was a small explosion in one of the batteries, and we again went in with a secondary attack and were able to knock it down.”
Though firefighters were done by late morning, travelers who expected to board by then remained largely in the dark, unaware of what would follow after they were sent back from the gate to ticketing.
“I’m supposed to work tomorrow, so I’m kind of in trouble,” said Justin Mott, waiting in back of a daunting line at 11:40. “I don’t even know what happened.”
An hour later, Mott, a photojournalist in Southeast Asia trying to return to Vietnam via Tokyo after a trip home to Rhode Island, had scarcely moved or been updated. “No one’s told me anything yet.”
About 100 people ahead, seven ticketing agents toiled to piece together multileg alternative routes from an assortment of mostly full flights elsewhere, spending a half-hour or more with some customers.
Several in line sighed audibly, weight shifting as they read, fiddled with iPads, or tried to will the line to move.
Others were in good spirits. Annie Blanc, part of a group of Montreal retirees flying to Vietnam via Boston and Tokyo, considered it an opportunity to fit another city into their 26-day tour. “If we go by another country, another great city instead of Tokyo, it could be great,” she said.
Hueilan Lin, a business traveler from Newton bound for Taiwan via Tokyo, was rebooked on a flight through Amsterdam. Though he would be delayed, he was unfazed about the fire and the time. “These things happen,” he said. “I will not miss my meeting.”