Fired engineer calls 787's plastic fuselage unsafe

Boeing denies assertion; it says technical experts satisfied


? 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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