Boeing 787 Dreamliner: Composite Airframe May Be Unsafe?


A former employee of Boeing who has been laid off last year claims that the new carbon-composite airframe of the upcoming Boeing 787 Dreamliner may be unsafe. According to ATW News, Vince Weldon who had worked for Boeing for 46 years claims in an interview with journalist Dan Rather that he was fired in 2006 because he pointed out safety glitches in relation to this new breakthrough technology to be used widely in the construction of the Dreamliner (composite is to replace aluminium in the bodyframe of the airliner).

The new Dreamliner – which was revealed a little more than two months ago – is to have a body fully built from composite materials, which guarantee weight reduction (thus increased fuel efficiency and less environmental harm), as well as the possibility of more humidity in the passenger cabin, which would reduce the effects of flying on the human body. At the time when he was laid off, he was working for the Phantom Works technology centre of Boeing, developing the new composite plastic materials for the new aircraft. Boeing officially claims they had to fire him as he had assaulted his bosses several times.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner Composite Fuselage - by Boeing

The former employee claims that the new structure carries several risks, which are known to Boeing as well, who try to hide it as they wish to begin manufacturing and delivering the aircraft as soon as possible. Boeing has more than 700 firm orders for the aircraft already, the first one due for delivery to ANA in MAY2008. The former engineer says he can support his arguments with archived internal e-mails between Boeing colleagues, while Boeing announced that they were earlier faced with such problems, which have been solved by nowThese risks according to Mr. Weldon would be:

 

  • the brittle carbon-composite compounds based airframe would break much easier than the traditional, more flexible aluminium aircraft body in an emergency landing for example (more likely to shatter on any impact actually),
  • if ignited and catching fire, it would omit poisonous and toxic gases and chemicals while burning,
  • the fuselage is less resistant to lightnings while flying,
  • any damages are harder to see and visually locate.

According to him these risks would reduce the chance of survival in case of an accident involving any of the above described situations. Just to remember: last week a McDonnel Douglas airplane has broken in two and caught fire during an (emergency) landing in Thailand, claiming 88 deaths and leaving 42 survivors who could escape the burning airplane – so such a situation can happen with a traditionally built aluminium aircraft as well unfortunately, but he says the risk of such a situation largely increases by the usage of composite materials.

The B787 is currently undergoing the tests of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which will allow the production later on if all tests are passed, and therefore justify the worries expressed above, or reject them. The first crash-tests (drop-tests) brought good results for the new aircraft, but most of the testing (and all flight tests) are still to take place in a reduced, speeded up schedule of about 6 months – much shorter than previous airliner programs (see our earlier post about the delay of the first flight).

At first one could even think that these arguments may be fueled by Airbus but separately last week Airbus confirmed to ATWOnline that it has ditched the aluminum frame for a composite frame on the A350 XWB. The move came after key customers ILFC and Emirates expressed concerns about maintenance on an aluminum structure. The original plan involved composite panels on an aluminium frame, but now Airbus has voted to go for an all-composite structure, similar to Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which suggests that the technology must be safe enough to be rolled out to production.

An Airbus spokesperson said last week that the decision was taken for “simplification of maintenance.” (Mr. Weldon argues that maintenance of composite structures becomes more complicated due to some damages remaining invisible…) The company expects to complete design refinement by year end with first delivery in late 2013 (some 5 years behind the planned first delivery of the 787).

So what can we do? I think the best is to wait for the test results of the 787, which will be the first aircraft with a composite airframe, but the doubt will now be there in some people’s minds for sure. I’m still excited to fly the Dreamliner and am looking forward to a better, more humanly onboard environment with the different pressure and humidity, that would never be possible in an aluminium framed aircraft and of course hope that such risks mentioned above will never be tested in real life…

by balint01

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18 Responses to “Boeing 787 Dreamliner: Composite Airframe May Be Unsafe?”


  1. 1 mddykstra41 September 25, 2007 at 4:05 am

    Good Post there balint01. I must admit such thoughts about the composite frame have been sitting in the back of my mind as well, but to get it from someone who has actually worked in the aircraft industry just adds weight to the problem. I do think more testing should be conducted on the composite material until such time all the questions that have been asked can be answered.

    Having worked in a airline such matters are of interest to me and will be interesting to see once time rolls along. If you have time check out my New Zealand Accommodation website at: http://www.justbookme.com

    Cheers.

  2. 2 boeing777 September 25, 2007 at 5:54 am

    http://fleetbuzz.wordpress.com/2007/09/20/blowing-wind/

  3. 3 balint01 September 25, 2007 at 11:06 am

    Thanks for the comments, it’s really good to see that the first two comments are expressing two different views already, it shows that it’s a complicated and controversial topic.
    We have to remember that we are talking about a fired employee (not one who decided to leave the company on his own will after ringing the bell which nobody listened to for example – it would be a totally different situation), we must be precautious in accepting his views. But he made it to the media, and we have learned about his point of view. There are other opinions like in the post linked by boeing777.
    Keep up your comments and the conversation, it is a topic worth talking about!

    • 4 CrashedAirliner April 4, 2011 at 7:42 pm

      Well remember if he caught the airline trying to cover up safety issues just to release the plane in a more timely manner. It would make sense to fire him and to discredit him. If a cover up was indeed in the works think about that… Then who would believe him after that right?

  4. 5 boeing777 September 25, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    We must also remember that this critic has NEVER worked on the 787 program either.

  5. 6 Swaminathan Balaraman January 28, 2008 at 7:18 am

    Use of composites in air structures may be new but its already find its roots on high speed boats and racing cars. But 100% usage is the first time in history of a aircraft manufacturing. one can think of a all composite structure of an aircraft with a composite made speed boat. All the +ve claims of speed are OK, but not at the cost of safety factors. Damage in composites can’t be known until there is a total shear. The creep and fatigue factors are there. One cann’t identify by a naked eye just like aluminium. This involves use of complex strutural testing and inspection. Airlines which had tough flying schedules may not carryout all these.

    The second thing is its hazordous to health when it emits toxics. Also in the event of fire it will be tragic and resue operation can be complicated. where as a metal can be cutted not the composite. lets see. Maiden fliers will form as an example. May be one can use it primarily for cargo and test its worthiness.

  6. 7 bm March 9, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    According to ATW News, the 46 year old Vince Weldon who had worked for Boeing since 1973

    Now this is investigative journalism at it’s finest! Mr. Weldon is 46 years old and has worked at Boeing since 1973.

  7. 8 balint01 March 10, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    bm, thanks for your comment, you’re right, the quote was misleading (and mathematically impossible). The article has been corrected.

  8. 9 Aerospace Engineer February 12, 2009 at 7:27 am

    I concur with Vince Weldon. This airplane has deficient lightning protection of the occupants. It has no means of adequately bleeding off the charge it will pick up as it’s huge carbon composite fuselage
    strips free electrons from the air it moves thru.

    without adequate protection of the occupants by virtue of a ‘farraday cage’ there will likely be planes hit in storms or in rhe process of flying IFR, where occupants end up being the ‘conductor’ of the energy as it passes thru the aircraft from one side to the other.

    the embedded protection, once hit and burnt, cannot be removed and replaced.

    Weldon is right.

    • 10 VOL___CONT May 2, 2009 at 11:37 pm

      Having been in the industry for over 30 years, and currently working on the 7(late)7 project–787—I think the “partners” global concept was far-reaching, but short of the goal. GA in Charleston, SC is providing the main fuselage section of the aircraft, and are allowing inspection processes(as far as the wiring installaions) to be complied with by non-certificated employees who have at least 6 months on the team.

      No good feel between the engineering and the production floor on this one. The ME’s and DE’s are overwhelmed by the amount of errors in the paperwork(mostly the result of people doing the ‘cut and paste’ method of turning out pertinent documents and drawings)and are mostly surly when approached for help…

      Kinda sounds like the Spruce Goose to me. My lead on this project has no prior A/C experience, was previously in the construction business, and is sure he know everything there is to know about ‘safety of flight’, ‘airworthyness’, et

  9. 11 Eric December 17, 2009 at 10:04 am

    I don’t think a commercial aircraft should use all composite structure. The wings should not use it, all aluminum or another developed metal is much safer.

    there is a misconception about composites and there strength. They may be stronger in terms of load than particular metals, but they are inferior in rigidity strength.

    The don’t flex so well and absorb impact so well. No matter what the manufacture technic is, the composite is still when it comes down to it, fiber glass. Its light, might be fun for a racecar, but it is not durable.

    I would hope that this composite material solution gets around finally. Thats why cars are not made from them, except race cars for weight. On impact they shatter. They are not safe for the everyday driver. All of a sudden that material that is stronger than steel is as weak as brittle plastic, which is what it basically is.

    When a composite structure goes, it goes. there is not bend, there is no holding together for a moment of time. It breaks in shards and is gone.

    This is why it is so unsafe. It is not good for the enviroment, is more toxic in plane in the big picture as its materials are not recyclable and it has a shorter lifespan in high use.

    The proper thing to have done was to not ignore some basic principles. That passenger airline travel must be the utmost strict and careful taken to full heart craft. And to motivate away from that by a 20% per craft financial gain is a crime.

    The plane cannot deal with lighting strikes.

    The plane cannot deal with impact well.

    The plane is much more vulnerable to catching fire.

    The plane cannot have as much durability. Like all plastics they become brittle and old much faster than any metal.

    The plane has a much greater risk for manufacture flaws in the material that is hidden from inspection and prediction.

    The plane increases function risks further by not using in backup systems any hydraulic solution. Fly by wire only is very dangerous. Add that to the equation of being less lighting capable.

    The plane will not really achieve 20% monetary gains. It has complexities that the industry will find to diminish that. Inspection and maintance and replacement is a huge one.

    the plane does not travel any faster than tried and true aluminum models.

    A one piece body in sections is nice. However the sections is where that idea because weak. The once piece being one part exerts so much load on its joints when it tries to alleviate pressure in flex, where as a component build has can displace that load and force more evenly that is not directed onto one section joint. The tug and war of that situation will result in only two outcomes, the separation of jointed sections, or the total give and break away of the section under stress. The plane could not withstand the loss of a section as has happened a few times in a flight.

    What is needed is a new metal development or manufacturing for an existing one.

    Systems should also be isolated. passenger networks should totally be on a separate system than the planes.

    ahh, the list goes on. I like the idea of the 787, I just don’t like the execution of it. Its against logic and sound judgement.

  10. 12 Alejandro January 23, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Without yet reading the article, I had the same impression of the fired employee about the composites, I several composite bicycle and motorcycle parts and none of them lasted as long as the plastics and aluminum on them. Carbon fiber exhaust silencer lasting nothing, the carbon fiber handlebars lasted nothing, the bicycle frame lasting nothing, with the 787 stress that it will have it will last nothing……. aluminum is less expensive and more flexible, now, I’ve seen plastics less brittle and more stronger and flexible and longer lasting than both aluminum and carbon fiber.

    * the brittle carbon-composite compounds based airframe would break much easier than the traditional, more flexible aluminium aircraft body in an emergency landing for example (more likely to shatter on any impact actually),
    * if ignited and catching fire, it would omit poisonous and toxic gases and chemicals while burning,
    * the fuselage is less resistant to lightnings while flying,
    * any damages are harder to see and visually locate.

  11. 13 sanu July 24, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    supper aircarft

  12. 14 David Carter November 24, 2011 at 2:00 am

    I just want to direct some of this conversation’s attention to smaller aircraft that HAVE successfully used all-composite construction, and are still around and structurally sound. (I can’t speak so much to their cost effectiveness, but they haven’t been shattered to bits yet).

    The first all-composite aircraft to undergo FAA certification was the Beech Starship (the high cost and duration of that certification process being the biggest nail in its coffin). Of the 53/57 produced (sources vary), 10 were sold, 5 are still flying (as of a 2008 YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=1vSiiE2cyuc), but the owners of those aircraft love them, and still own them because they refused Raytheon’s order to sell them back to the company for destruction.

    Other small aircraft such as the various Cirrus aircraft are all-composite. The oldest of those recently passed 10 years old and have survived numerous crashes without shattering. (To the best of my knowledge, no Beech Starship was ever in an accident).

    Nearly all of Burt Rutan’s designs are made of composite materials, and if they were prone to ALL of these crash-risks, I don’t think he would have kept using composites as faithfully as he did. Far from running away from them, he founded a company devoted to the creation of aircraft by the sole use of composite materials. Not only are they still making airplanes, but they’re making space-craft out of composites now, too.

    Terrafugia, in MA, is making a flying car (or “roadable aircraft”) out of composite materials, and that has to be able to pass road-safety requirements.

    Brittle and un-crash-worthy? I strongly doubt. More susceptible to lightning damage? That I can easily see, and personally, I hope to God that the aircraft has mechanical flight controls and isn’t 100% reliant upon computer controls (“fly-by-wire”), because it bears a greater risk of the computer getting overloaded and short-circuited by a lightning strike. Will burn and emit toxic fumes? I can see that, too, but a lot of other materials do the same thing. Aluminum is the solid rocket fuel used in the space shuttle booster rockets. The aviation industry has, for years, not focused so much on making crashes survivable as it has merely attempted to avoid crashes in the first place. They’re expensive, and designing to withstand them (especially on airliner scale) is even more expensive.

    I don’t know what the acoustic properties of the composite materials are, but if you coat the plane with a brittle paint, that will show cracks easily visible to the naked eye. Otherwise, standard inspection technique at present is to ultrasound the wing and look at the resonance changes on a computer screen, rather than actually visually inspecting the wing. So long as the carbon fiber can carry a tune, they can inspect it for cracks.

  13. 15 Attila January 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    I think, this is all about money and competition.

  14. 16 JJS-PhD June 30, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    stress = Mc/I and shear stress =VQ/It and the ususual methods of calculating wing deflection do not apply to compositie materials. Composite materials are brittle, not ductile. Theory of easticity shows that calculated deflections must be small, 1 inch but not 3 feet. What magic do engineers use rather than misusing structural theory.

  15. 17 Bobby G. March 27, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    Shhhh. Dont. mention Malasia Airlines Flight MH370.

    Aint no fires on boeing planes.

    Aint no delaminating problems here , sah.

    No sah.

  16. 18 Bobby G. March 27, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    OOOOPS. That one will have to be censored…. er removed for some nice sounding bogus reason.


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