Boeing 787 catches fire at London’s Heathrow

Early indications suggest battery issues that plagued the plane weren’t at fault

The New York TimesJuly 13, 2013 

A still image from video shows emergency crew members standing near the tail section of a Boeing 787 operated by Ethiopian Airlines that caught fire Friday at Heathrow Airport near London. Heathrow briefly closed both its runways to deal with the fire.

REUTERS

An internal fire broke out Friday on a Boeing 787 that Ethiopian Airlines had parked between flights at London’s Heathrow Airport, the airport said.

The plane was in a remote area, and no passengers were on board. But the airport temporarily suspended arrivals and departures on its two runways while fire crews responded to the incident at 4:36 p.m. local time, several hours before the plane, named the Queen of Sheba, was scheduled to depart for Ethiopia. By 6 p.m., the runways had reopened, and traffic was returning to normal.

Boeing said it was aware of the problem. The airport, the airline and Boeing had not identified the cause of the fire.

The incident took place about two months after the innovative 787 Dreamliners returned to the skies after being grounded for four months because of hazards with a new type of battery. One of the lithium-ion batteries caught fire on a 787 parked at a Boston airport on Jan. 9, and another began smoking in midflight a week later, forcing the 787 to make an emergency landing in Japan.

Regulators lifted the grounding orders after Boeing came up with a plan to refit the first 50 or so of the new jets with more insulation between the battery cells and a new system for venting smoke or hazardous gases out of the planes.

Ethiopian Airlines has four 787s in its fleet.

Boeing said that while the planes were grounded it also had made changes in electrical panels that had failed on occasion since the planes were introduced into service in late 2011.

At Heathrow, the plane appeared to have sustained damage on the crown of the fuselage near its rear, which would not be near either of the two batteries. Television footage and photographs showed fire damage near the base of the vertical stabilizer that appeared to burn through the plane’s carbon composite skin. Some wiring could run near the area where the damage was visible.

But the main electrical panels and generators are in the center of the plane, below the passenger floor. That is also where one of the two lithium-ion batteries is situated. The second is near the front of the plane, under the cockpit.

Britain’s Air Accidents Investigations Branch said it had sent a team of experts to Heathrow to look at the plane. In Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said it also would send an investigator.

The Heathrow incident was not the only problem aboard a 787 on Friday. Thomson Airways said one of its Dreamliner planes traveling from England to Florida had to turn back after experiencing a technical issue, according to The Associated Press.

Thomson, a British charter airline, said that Flight 126 traveling from Manchester Airport to Sanford, Fla., had returned to Manchester “as a precautionary measure.”

It said all passengers had left the plane and that engineers were inspecting it.

Boeing has delivered 66 787s so far, with orders totaling 930 planes — an important anchor for its revenues over the next two decades. The company’s stock, which had rallied in recent months, fell more than 7 percent after news of the incident broke, but it recovered somewhat later in the day to close at $101.87, off 4.7 percent.

Both Boeing and airlines around the world had hoped to put the problems behind them after fixing the battery issue. Another round of uncertainty over what caused the fire could provoke anxiety among passengers who could be more reluctant to fly on a new plane, or lead some airlines to delay or defer their orders.

Aviation analysts said Boeing’s battery problems had cost it hundreds of millions of dollars and slowed its progress in fielding the planes.

The 787 has many innovations that go well beyond its carbon-fiber structure. To reduce weight and improve efficiency, Boeing replaced much of the traditional pneumatic systems with electrical ones that do not rely on bleed air from the engines.

The 787 has six electrical power generators —including two near the rear of the plane, linked to the auxiliary power generator, and two on each of the plane’s two engines. These generators provide power to the plane’s electrical systems in flight, including the flight deck displays, flight controls and in-flight entertainment. The system reduces the drag on the engines and generates less noise.

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