Tag Archives: aircraft

Is debacle too strong a word for the 787? Perhaps not

Well I certainly didn’t anticipate writing about Boeing’s 787 problems two days in a row but it’s impossible not to do so in the wake of the eye-popping developments last night.

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All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 with its evacuation slides deployed after an emergency landing in Japan.

For those who haven’t yet heard, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines yesterday grounded their 787 Dreamliner fleets — collectively 24 aircraft in all and nearly half of all 787 deliveries made so far — in the wake of an emergency landing by an ANA flight at Takamatsu airport in western Japan.

ANA said the aircraft’s pilots received a cockpit message indicating battery problems. A burning smell was additionally detected in the cockpit and cabin. All 129 passengers and eight crew members evacuated safely using the emergency slides.

The episode comes in the wake of a decision last Friday by the FAA to conduct a review of the airliner and its certification after a litany of problems, many of them related to the lithium-ion battery technology the aircraft. Here’s a link to a comprehensive list of recent snags from Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

Boeing last night tweeted this response: “We’re aware of the ANA 787 diversion in Japan. We will be working with ANA and the authorities to determine what happened and why.”

That the batteries once again appear to have caused a problem is striking. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, the airplane makes use of battery technology in place of hydraulics as a weight-saving measure (the weight saving is one of the reasons the airplane is said to be 20 per cent more fuel efficient than other aircraft of its size). I came across a tweet today from Stephen Trimble (@FG_STrim), an aviation reporter and editor at flightglobal.com, who says a 787 lithium battery caught fire in 2006 and — ehem — burned down an office building.

By the way, here’s a picture, in a story written by Stephen Trimble, released by the NTSB in the U.S., showing the charred battery box from an incident last week involving a JAL flight at Boston’s Logan Airport. Clearly the battery was on fire.

I received training on extinguishing Lithium-ion battery fires when I was a flight attendant. They’re commonly used as a power source for laptop computers and cell phones. When a li-ion battery has what’s called a thermal runaway and overheats, the result is nasty. And cell phone batteries have had precisely these kinds of runaways on aircraft before. In fact there was one in 2011 in Australia. Temperatures can go as high as 1,110 F. The important first response is to cool the battery using water.

More from twitter: Josh Newman (@joshuan542), who is studying to be an AME in the UK, sent me a message pointing out that ANA and JAL use the same maintenance company. Worth noting, given the majority of the 787 problems have come from those two airlines. That said, those two airlines also have more of the aircraft than any other operator thus far.

By the way, Air Canada has ordered 37 787s so far. Here’s a link to a list of 787 customers.

No one at this point would be surprised if the entire 787 fleet was grounded until the FAA completes its review. Increasingly, it would appear the FAA made a prudent decision last week and it’s important for Boeing to respond as openly and transparently as possible and not simply assert the airplane is safe. Clearly it’s not quite.

Museum pieces that fly

High time, pun intended, that bearing360 introduce a few more aircraft to the site and what better way to do so than with a visit to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum?

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CF 104 Starfighter at entrance to museum.

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DC3

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Hawker Hurricane

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Avro Lancaster, undergoing engine work.

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Avro Canada CF100 Mk 5D

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Cockpit of the CF100. Tight fit.

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Bristol Bolingbroke, undergoing restoration. Note the perspex indent on the nose to provide better visibility for the pilot.

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Restored Bolingbroke mid-upper gun turret with twin Browning .303 machine guns.

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The museum is located at the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport (CYHM) and is about an hour’s drive from my home. It’s one of my favourite aviation stops. I dropped in with my kids last weekend.

(Hamilton, I should add, is my birthplace and home for five generations of my family. Six if you include two of my kids, who were also born there. More about Hamilton and its airport in a future post.)

The museum. It’s notable not only because it has a remarkable collection of vintage aircraft — likely the best collection in the nation outside of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa — but is unique insofar as most of the aircraft, including an Avro Lancaster bomber, are in flyable condition. In fact, you can book a ride in many of the aircraft, including the Lancaster, DC3, and B25 Mitchell bomber; before I leave this mortal coil, I must ride in that Lancaster, which is one of only two remaining in the world that still fly. Getting married? The museum hosts wedding receptions and meetings on its hanger floor (and yes, I was tempted when I got hitched; the Mrs. wasn’t quite as enthused).

Among the museum highlights : a walk-through of life as a Lancaster crew member during the Second World War and a North American Yale aircraft, which played a role in the (mostly regrettable) 1942 Hollywood film, Captains of the Clouds, starring James Cagney.

The museum is also dedicated to aircraft restoration. It has three projects on the go, including a Bristol Bolingbroke medium bomber, a Canadian variant of the Bristol Blenheim Mk IV bomber. The Bolly, as it was known, was built and used exclusively in Canada for anti-submarine patrol on both coasts during the Second World War and as a training platform under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. It’s distinctive nose has an indented cutout in the perspex covering the bomb aimer compartment in order to provide better visibility to the pilot. I spoke last weekend with one of the gentlemen busy with the restoration and was told it should be complete three years hence.

 

 

 

The mystery of the missing Spitfires

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A Mark XIV Spitfire, similar to the those believed buried in Burma at the end of the Second World War.

If you’re a lover of machines with wings, you can’t help but be captivated by a remarkable undertaking currently unfolding in Myanmar (Burma).

There, a 21-member team of archeologists, led by a British farmer and aviation enthusiast by the name of David Cundall, has begun the process of excavating and raising to the surface what is believed to be dozens of buried Spitfire aircraft from the Second World War.

The quest drips with historical intrigue and drama. Do the aircraft actually exist? One report says there may be as many as 140 of them. If they do, and they’re found, in what condition will they be?

Part of the answer may already be at hand. Early this morning there was news from the site: The team said it had found a wooden crate containing what is believed to be an aircraft and that the crate was filled with water. The information was gleaned from a camera inserted through a bore hole.

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Aviation enthusiast David Cundall is spearheading the search for Spitfire aircraft in Burma.

Cundall, who has invested $200,000 of his own money and some 17 years on the project, called the find “encouraging,” and believes once the water is pumped out, a vintage aircraft in good condition will be the prize.

But will it? Others are more skeptical. One of search team’s archeologists, Andy Brockman, has said the team might find nothing more than rusted metal and parts. British war veterans have been quoted saying the airplanes don’t even exist.

Cundall is more hopeful. He believes the airplanes, new from the factory, were packed in grease and tar paper and that the burial depth of 30 feet will be enough to keep oxygen out and prevent corrosion. He also says a protective covering was placed over the crates to prevent water damage.

It’s believed the airplanes were buried by the U.S. army, on British orders, in August, 1945, as the war was coming to a close. Reports vary as to why. One says that with the war in its final stage they had become surplus and were buried to prevent them from being used by Japanese. Another says the airplanes were buried so they couldn’t be used by Burmese independence fighters (Burma was a British colony) after the war.

Regardless, if true, and if the airplanes are in a condition that would permit restoration, the find would be sensational. The Spitfire is the iconic fighter that helped win the Battle of Britain, Some 20,000 were built and only 35 remain flyable. The buried airplanes are all believed to be the Mark XIV variant, meaning they were equipped with the powerful (2035 hp) Griffon engine.

Impossible not to be cheering Cundall’s team on, and hoping some, or even all, of the aircraft exist and can be restored to flying condition.

By the by, there’s a minor Canadian angle to the story: Cundall says the lumber used to crate the airplanes was two-inch thick Canadian pine.

 

 

WestJet lands a wide-body blow

Let’s open with some relatively recent news, namely, that WestJet has begun talks with Boeing and Airbus to acquire wide-body aircraft.

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WestJet has begun talks with Boeing and Airbus about buying wide-body aircraft, suggesting it plans to go head-to-head with Air Canada on overseas routes.
Photo: MacLeans Magazine

In Canada, a country where scheduled service is basically carved up by two major carriers, this is a big deal, and no doubt caught the attention of executives at rival Air Canada. No doubt it was intended to. The message: We’re coming.

WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky, who made the announcement in a presentation to investors and analysts on Dec. 6, did his best to hose down the drama component by stating the talks are of a preliminary nature only.

“It’s way too early for us to be interested in any serious way,” Saretsky was quoted by Bloomberg as saying. “We don’t want to be asleep at the switch should an opportunity present itself, so we are engaging early just to be ready, but without any specific plans.”

Specific or not, the significance of the announcement will not be lost on Air Canada, because it more than suggests that WestJet is girding to battle its rival on the lucrative trans-ocean routes to Europe and Asia. This will be a significant change to the Canadian aviation landscape.

And it will be a ballsy, and even a somewhat risky, decision internally for WestJet, which has built its brand offering service in North America using one type, and one type only, since its inception in 1996 – the venerable 737. It currently uses three versions of the type, the 600 (configured at 119 seats), the 700 (136 seats) and the 800 (166 seats).

The devotion to the one-type model, and the cost savings utilizing just one type reaps, has played a significant role in the company’s remarkable success – 30 consecutive quarters of profit, many of those quarters defying the gravity of the worst recession in decades.

Introducing other types will drastically complicate the training and certification of crew and maintenance personnel and  the acquisition and storage of parts. Associated costs will be enormous.

And yet, why not? The airline will be able to leverage its existing human and brick-and-mortar  infrastructure, procedures, policies, government and stakeholder relationships, etc. So while the cost will be significant, the existing structure will make those costs far more manageable than if it were starting from scratch.

(A disclaimer is in order. I worked at WestJet for nearly three years, most of that time spent as a flight attendant. I think it’s one of the best companies to work for in Canada and one of the best-run companies, period.)

In fairness to the news value, the notion of WestJet eventually acquiring wide-body airplanes was talked about openly by Saretsky himself back in December of 2011, when it announced plans to start a domestic regional airline (WestJet Encore). Encore is due to lift off in the second half of 2013. In fact, the regional itself, which will feature the Q400 product, was a break from the one-aircraft type model and there was concern among critics at the time of inception that breaking the one-type model was dangerous.

But managed, calculated risk is what allows us all to get out of bed each morning. Same for a business.

Even before the announcement of the Q400-based regional, airline had been flexing its wings vis-à-vis  other aircraft types, using a leased Boeing 757 during the past few winters to augment its service to Hawaii. The experiment gave a window into the associated problems that another type would introduce and a safe platform from which to problem solve.

Once the regional is up and running, the airline will have a seamless feed-in structure: A turboprop serving small communities and feeding a medium jet service serving North America, which in turn will funnel guests – WestJet doesn’t call them passengers – to points of departure for flights overseas. The logic is difficult to defy.

Air Canada, the country’s dominant carrier, knows this is coming. It has already said it will lower fares on routes that WestJet begins to serve with the Q400 and on Dec. 18 rolled out its new discount carrier, Rouge, which will begin flying next July to Europe the Caribbean.

Air Canada has gone the discount route before, and each time it collapsed under the weight of the airline’s existing structure. It’s worth noting that WestJet has a cost structure about one-third less than Air Canada’s, which is a large reason why it has thrived. The difference this time, and what makes Air Canada Rouge a more formidable adversary, is the arbitration decision imposed on pilots last summer that gave the airline the pay scale and flexibility it said it needed to compete.

Watching the two heavyweight adversaries slug it out is like watching Ali-Foreman. More blows, of course, have to yet to land. Certainly where WestJet goes, one of the most highly anticipated will be its choice of wide-body product.  Thoughts, anyone?