Fired engineer calls 787's plastic fuselage unsafe

A former senior aerospace engineer at Boeing's Phantom Works research unit, fired last year under disputed circumstances, is going public with concerns that the new 787 Dreamliner is unsafe.

Forty-six-year veteran Vince Weldon contends that in a crash landing that would be survivable in a metal airplane, the new jet's innovative composite plastic materials will shatter too easily and burn with toxic fumes. He backs up his views with e-mails from engineering colleagues at Boeing and claims the company isn't doing enough to test the plane's crashworthiness.

Boeing vigorously denies Weldon's assertions, saying the questions he raised internally were addressed to the satisfaction of its technical experts.

Weldon's allegations will be aired tonight by Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchor, on his weekly investigative show on cable channel HDNet.

Weldon thinks that without years of further research, Boeing shouldn't build the Dreamliner and that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shouldn't certify the jet to fly.

Boeing's current compressed schedule calls for a six-month flight-test program and federal certification in time for delivery in May.

Rather's show presents a letter Weldon wrote to the FAA in July detailing his view, as well as two e-mails to Weldon dated August 2005 and February 2006, expressing similar safety concerns, from unidentified senior Boeing engineers who are still at the company.

Weldon worked at a Boeing facility in Kent. Within Boeing, he led structural design of a complex piece of the space shuttle and supervised several advance design groups. He has worked with composites since 1973.

Weldon recently declined through an intermediary to speak with The Seattle Times.

Boeing confirms he was a senior engineer, but spokeswoman Lori Gunter said he is not specifically a materials expert.

He complains in his July 24 letter to the FAA that when he expressed his criticisms internally they were ignored and "well-covered up."

Weldon was fired in July 2006. He alleged in a whistle-blower complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that the firing was "retaliation for raising concerns throughout the last two years of his employment about the crashworthiness of the 787."

But according to a summary of OSHA's findings, Boeing told investigators Weldon was fired for threatening a supervisor, specifically for stating he wanted to hang the African-American executive "on a meat hook" and that he "wouldn't mind" seeing a noose around the executive's neck.

Weldon denied to OSHA investigators that he had referred to a noose and said the "meat hook" reference had not been a threat.

OSHA dismissed Weldon's claim, denying him whistle-blower status largely on the grounds that Boeing's 787 design does not violate any FAA regulations or standards.

FAA spokesman Mike Fergus said Monday the 787 will not be certified unless it meets all the FAA's criteria, including a specific requirement that Boeing prove passengers will have at least as good a chance of surviving a crash landing as they would in current metal airliners.

Rather said Weldon had spoken out publicly only with great reluctance.

"We approached Weldon. In the beginning, it was not at all certain he would cooperate," Rather said in an interview.

Rather said his show doesn't determine whether Boeing or Weldon is right. But referring to the e-mails from Weldon's peers, he said, "There are others who are still within the company who are concerned ... that Boeing could be destroyed by taking the 787 to market too soon and brushing aside these safety concerns too cavalierly."

The Seattle Times reviewed the program transcript and also the letter to the FAA. In the letter, Weldon alleges:

? The brittleness of the plastic material from which the 787 fuselage is built would create a more severe impact shock to passengers than an aluminum plane, which absorbs impact in a crash by crumpling. A crash also could shatter the plastic fuselage, creating a hole that would allow smoke and toxic fumes to fill the passenger cabin.

? After such a crash landing, the composite plastic material burning in a jet-fuel fire would create "highly toxic smoke and tiny inhalable carbon slivers" that "would likely seriously incapacitate or kill passengers."

Weldon also told the FAA this could also pose a major environmental hazard in the area around the crash site.

? The recently conducted crashworthiness tests in which Boeing dropped partial fuselage sections from a height of about 15 feet at a test site in Mesa, Ariz. are inadequate and do not match the stringency of comparable tests done on a 737 fuselage section in 2000.

? The conductive metal mesh embedded in the 787's fuselage surface to conduct away lightning is too light and vulnerable to hail damage, and is little better than a "Band-Aid."

Though aluminum airplanes are safe to fly through lightning storms, Weldon wrote, "I do not have even close to the same level of confidence" for the 787.

Boeing's Gunter denied the specifics in Weldon's Dreamliner critique.

"We have to demonstrate [to the FAA] comparable crashworthiness to today's airplanes," she said. "We are doing that."

The recently completed crash tests were successful but are only the beginning of a process that relies on computer modeling to cover every possible crash scenario, she said.

Tests so far have shown that shards of composite material released in a crash are not a shape that is easily inhaled, Gunter said, and the smoke produced by composites in a jet-fuel fire is no more toxic than the smoke from the crash of an aluminum plane.

The 787's lightning protection will meet FAA requirements, she said.

Gunter expressed frustration at Weldon's portrayal of the plane maker as taking shortcuts for profit.

"We wouldn't create a product that isn't safe for the flying public," Gunter said. "We fly on those airplanes. Our children fly on those airplanes."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com


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