Friday, January 25, 2013

Aviation Update

It's not surprising the 787 saga has been a second page story with all the other huge stories going on (Manti and Beyonce), but some strange things have happened.  Here's the Trans Secretary on January 11:
Despite the incidents, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared, “I believe this plane is safe, and I would have absolutely no reservations about boarding one of these planes and taking a flight.” Administrator Michael Huerta of the Federal Aviation Administration said his agency has seen no data suggesting the plane isn’t safe but wanted the review to find out why safety-related incidents were occurring.
Here he is on January 18 after an All Nippon 787 had to make an emergency landing:
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood vowed Friday that Boeing's 787 Dreamliner wouldn't take to the air again until regulators are absolutely certain it's safe. "Those planes aren't going to fly until we are 1,000% sure that they are safe to fly," LaHood said outside a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors here.
Such a flip-flop might become a big scandal during a GOP administration, especially with the added components of safety, Big Aviation, and unions.  But apparently we're in a new era of trust.

This new era included a rigorous certification process of the 787 culminating in certification in mid 2011, followed by thousands of daily scheduled flights from late 2011 through most of 2012 without any serious incidents.

During this same time period Boeing was embroiled in labor problems.  The 787 is a new kind of airplane for them and the production and supply chain represents a new way of making planes that apparently some in the old guard found upsetting.  But new airplanes always have bugs

But suddenly the bugs began piling up.   On January 11th the feds announced a comprehensive review of the "safe" aircraft, triggered mainly by the publicity of a battery fire on the ground in Boston.  A very short time later Boeing offered a pay increase to some of the very same engineers who were to be integrally involved in the upcoming review process.  Just months prior Boeing management had been threatening to move engineering work away from their Seattle HQ due to the high cost of doing business in Washington State. 

Of course everyone remembers the brouhaha after they announced moving part of the production to South Carolina and how that triggered a review by the NLRB (ie, Obama administration), which ended in a contract offer to Seattle personnel and a dropping of the complaint.  So there's more than enough fodder for speculation or conspiracy.

Not only that, but everyone knows batteries on airplanes are no laughing matter.  Commercial carriers are already restricted as to the transport of lithium-ion batteries as cargo; the 787 uses a massive version to power its electrical system.   According to some reports the UPS 747 that crashed in Dubai in 2010 was doomed by a fire emanating amongst a shipment of such batteries in the main cargo hold (nobody has explained what started the fire but this cause has apparently been ruled out).  Supposedly Boeing prepared for the contingency of a possible battery fire in the 787 by designing a fireproof compartment that wouldn't allow a fire to spread, which was part of the certification signoff.

Now they've got a mess.  Whether any of that mess was unavoidable, avoidable, or inflamed by shady operations is beyond the knowledge of the average person at this point.  Clearly there's a lot at stake. 

Ironically, another fire aboard an aircraft was blamed on a crash that killed 230 people in 1996. Unlike the 787 battery fires it did not trigger a world-wide grounding of the 747 despite what appeared to be a horrible flaw, possible wiring issues in the fuel tanks. There were circulars and such but the 'fix'--a nitrogen interting system in the fuel tank to neutralize vapors--didn't arrive for almost a decade.  This fix has been mandated on newer aircraft and calls for retrofitting certain older aircraft but for some reason excludes cargo aircraft, as if they are somehow immune from middair explosions.

By the way, other causes were studied, including whether EMI from electronic devices might have triggered the spark, but the main focus seemed to be operating the fuel system on warm days.  Why this was suddenly a problem despite no recorded in-flight crashes caused by overheated fuel tanks in commercial aviation history remains a mystery.  

Regular readers know this crash has long been a source of skepticism here, mainly due to how it was handled in the press and by the Clinton administration, including certain theories provided by various agencies that don't usually get involved in domestic aviation investigations.  Jack Cashill was an early skeptic and his book "First Strike" initiated the interest, but his conclusion of a small terror plane never made much sense. Over the years he has kept an open mind and indeed his latest column suggests that former Kennedy family friend Pierre Salinger may have been onto something.

Not sure, but perhaps the biggest clue something might be amiss comes from the memoirs of those who should know.  Cashill points out that people like Hillary, Bill, George Stephanopoulis and George Tenet hardly mention this event at all in their tomes, quite odd for something Richard Clarke claimed almost triggered a war with Iran. That's pretty sensational stuff to omit from a book especially since the official cause is now something more random and mechanical.

But it's not just the prime players who ignore it.  The more recent book "Threat Matrix" by Garrett Graff is an exhaustive overview of the FBI starting with J. Edgar and moving to the Robert Mueller era.  The book tapped many sources and discusses various high-profile crimes and terror attacks along the timeline, yet is largely silent on two huge FBI cases--the anthrax letters and TWA 800.  Graff devoted far more pages to another TWA flight--847.

It's hard to say whether such omissions are deliberate, out of ignorance, or  whether some people just don't want to talk about certain things anymore, which is quite understandable with so much at stake. But the silence remains the most compelling evidence to date.  Which isn't much.

No comments: