The Times of India reported last week in this story, that the FAA had grounded all Boeing 787 aircraft equipped with GEnx engines. This is not the case, and there were no Airworthiness Directives issued by the FAA nor any other regulatory actions in that regard. Most of the world’s press got it right, but the flagship of Indian newspapers was unfortunately way off base. Today another story surfaced about an Air India 787 where the focus should be on Air India rather than the airplane.
What did happen is that on August 5th, a TUI Boeing 787 experienced an accessory gearbox failure that led to an in-flight shutdown of an engine. The investigation revealed that a gear within the gearbox had not undergone the required heat-treat process during manufacturing. An additional eight gears, processed at the same time, were identified as being in service, including on both engines installed on a particular Boeing 787 being operated by Air India. GE and Air India voluntarily pulled the aircraft from service to conduct a precautionary inspection. All eight suspect gearboxes were inspected, and found to have no problems, with properly heat treated parts, and the aircraft were returned to service shortly thereafter.
Rather than a regulatory action, this was voluntary action by the engine OEM and airline, related to specific parts from a specific batch that might have had a problem, and not a general problem that would have required regulatory action. The industry is as safe as it is because of such quality control efforts, including cradle to grave tracking of components, and the willingness to dig deep and find the root cause when problems occur. Kudos to GE, which is doing what needs to be done – find and solve any problem quickly, and make certain that it doesn’t happen again.
The Times article then went on to talk about an existing AD, covering a restriction on flying the 787 into thunderstorms due to the potential of engine ice forming in certain climatic conditions and potentially being ingested into the compressor. They cited potential difficulties in finding airspace to avoid thunderstorms over China as potentially problematic. The reality is that there is no such problem. My experience as a pilot, and my knowledge of air traffic controllers worldwide is that leeway around storms is always granted, and that no flight would ever be forced into a dangerous situation, whether in China, India, Europe or the USA. There have been no issues noted for the entire 787 fleet.
What they failed to mention is that a new FADEC (full authority digital engine control) software modification has been certified to address issues related to operating in rare, high altitude icing conditions, and already installed on entire the GEnx fleet. A second software upgrade is planned for later this year that will further improve capabilities in various icing modes. GE believes that the software modifications should result in the lifting of restrictions, and is working closely with Boeing and the FAA in that regard, with Boeing the lead party with the regulators.
Recently, high-altitude ice crystal formation has become a more important issue, particularly as more airliners operate in high-altitude tropical conditions around the world. NASA, FAA, EASA and Australian authorities all continue to research icing problems at high altitudes.
GE’s own testing in Winnipeg, Canada utilized a special device to manufacture ice crystals and simulate their ingestion at high altitude, and the second iteration of software is being adjusted to optimize performance after those tests. At the same time, GE is running component tests at the University of Dayton Research Center to better understand the effects of ice when it is released in a compressor. Further research is planned at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland with a full GEnx compressor operating in a special cell that simulates high altitude atmospheric conditions. That testing should confirm the effectiveness of the software modifications to eliminate icing concerns.
It takes time to identify the root cause of a problem, devise a solution, test it, and then have it certified by regulatory authorities. In this case, the problem is known and the solution has been devised, with an initial release in place to immediately improve safety and a subsequent release planned to optimize performance in potential conditions conducive to ice formation. Further testing is underway and planned, and regulators are being kept abreast of the process with the objective to remove any operational restrictions as quickly as possible.
From the 787 battery and the CSeries engine problem, we’ve seen that fixing problems, even with a concerted effort, takes time. In this case, there is much less risk to be concerned about, as one can fly around thunderstorms, and the “fix” is well underway.
Anything that happens with the 787 in India receives tremendous scrutiny, even the recent failure of four toilets due to passengers stuffing them with pillows, blankets, and other cabin paraphernalia. Air India has had more problems that anyone with its 787s; many of the difficulties seem to be self-inflicted. It has publicly negotiated with Boeing regarding compensation for delays, and seems to be ready to go after any deep pocket for any issue that may occur with the aircraft.While the 787 has clearly not yet reached its goals for reliability, they would be a lot closer if Air India was removed from the averages. Perhaps the focus should be on why Air India seems incapable of effectively operating a high technology aircraft with the dispatch reliability of other airlines, and what they need to do to bring an inefficient, politically corrupt, and perennially bankrupt airline into the modern age.