How unsafe can a Dreamliner, the “plastic-fantastic” Boeing 787, really become?

With two year old horror stories about the new and yet-to-fly jet reappearing in the mainstream media through the voice of a Boeing engineer allegedly fired for racial vilification, the answer is that it can’t become unsafe for anyone but Boeing shareholders.

The jet will either be certified as safe before entering service with carriers like Qantas, which has orders plus options and purchase rights for at least 115 of them, or it will never see service and Boeing will go broke.

The essence of the unsafe claims against the 787 are that it shatters on impact and is thus less survivable in a crash, that it may be vulnerable in lightning strikes, and that it will give off lethal fumes if it burns, endangering crash survivors, their rescuers and anyone living down wind.

The first element is nonsense. One reason Formula One drivers survive high velocity crashes with stationary concrete walls is that the driver sits in a cage of laminated sheets of reinforced carbon fibre just like the cabin of the 300 seat sized 787. Carbon fibre absorbs the forces of what passes for a low speed impact in a jet more “survivably” than wafer thin sheets of aluminium.

And it can break open into long shards at crash landing speeds, which is just what you want if there are long queues for the emergency exits and your clothes are on fire.

However the other two allegations continue to make certification of the 787 challenging, but no one in the aerospace game, including competitor Airbus which pioneered composite structures in jets in the first place, believes they are insurmountable.

Metal jets are conductive. In-flight lightning hasn’t been implicated in the crash of a jet for around 55 years. But composites are non-conductive. Boeing has already been forced to add significant amounts of metal to the sub structure of the 787 to turn it into a flying “Faraday Cage” which will (everyone hopes) prevent a major lightning strike “slowing down” in the structure for the split nano-second it might take to detonate fuel vapor in a tank, or rupture the plastic laminations in inconvenient and structurally important places. Fact is, burning metallic alloys and burning composites give off toxic fumes. Always have, always will.

At this stage the biggest threat to the 787 program isn’t overcoming the challenges of composites, but hype.

The roll out in July was a fraud. The so called prototype has been pulled apart and is slowly being reassembled with the wiring, systems and components it really needs to become a plane instead of a mock-up, and getting it working just on the ground, let alone in the air, is taking longer than anticipated.

Peter Fray

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