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Saturday, 19 January 2013

Dear Dreamliner, Please Don't Be Another Comet

1950. The dawn of a new era in commercial passenger travel. The dawn of the "Jet age". 

Photo: Extremetech.com
While the world was flying around in DC-6's, Lockheed Constellations & no shortage of DC-3's, a new plane was being developed that would revolutionise passenger air travel for ever. Futuristic, state of the art, the very latest in cutting-edge technology on so many levels. The very first jet powered airliner. A real "game changer". The future was here. Enter, the De Havilland Comet.

Unfortunately, there were some things about this new technology that they didn't yet know; some problems never envisaged, with consequences never foreseen. It never showed up in testing. They never knew that square windows on a pressurised aircraft would, over not too much time, cause the plane to rip itself apart in mid flight. The results were catastrophic.

Fast forward 55 years & Boeing is using all the same words, particularly that last one; "Game Changer". An airliner that would not just be an evolution, but a revolution in commercial airliners.

Photo: npr.org
Originally it was named the 7E7 for its revolutionary, fuel-saving use of Lithium Ion battery powered electronics, as opposed to current generation hydraulics & engine-powered systems. Yet I don't need to tell any airliner enthusiast of the recent spat of fires & emergency landings that this fangdangle new technology has caused. Problems that didn't show up in testing. Sound familiar?

Fortunately, pilots the world over have seen enough airliner carnage to know that at the first sign of any trouble, to get the plane on the ground as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Comet pilots in the 1950's didn't have this luxury. And whilst I would never wish the Comet's fate on the 787, I hope & pray that Boeing & the regulators continue to put passenger safety over commercial interests, as they say they have, & get this problem definitively fixed.

It's also interesting to note that whilst Boeing learnt every lesson from the Comet in the 1950's to ensure the B707 didn't repeat them, Airbus is paying very close attention to the 787's woes as it builds its first A350. 

For more info on Lithium Ion batteries & their problems, I found this article useful: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/18/169729162/powerful-but-fragile-the-challenge-of-lithium-batteries

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