While Qantas rips strips off Rolls-Royce behind closed doors over the engine fiasco that could have destroyed one of its giant Airbus A380s with 466 persons on board earlier this month, another serious problem has beset the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The 787 Dreamlineris supposed to be the key to Qantas retiring its aging Boeing 767s, yet one was forced to turn back to Perth on Friday with an engine problem.

The Dreamliner issues threaten longer term problems for Qantas. Even though the return to service of its A380s looks like being a drawn out process,  it’s been made worse by a shortage of ‘safe’ Trent 900 engines incorporating critical design changes that Rolls-Royce didn’t tell Qantas about until after a not-really-safe unit disintegrated shortly after taking off from Singapore for Sydney on November 4.

Last Tuesday, the second prototype of the substantially plastic 787 caught fire at low altitude over Texas and made an emergency landing at Laredo. It had to deploy its RAT, or ram air turbine, to help it make it to safety, an unambiguous sign of an airliner in distress, and something more for the flying ‘roo to worry about.

Boeing says that the fire in a ‘power panel’ in the rear electronics bay resulted in the ‘observation’ of molten metal but has remained silent so far as to whether there was any damage to the composite barrel surrounding it. The fuselage of the 787 comprises sections woven into shape using a cross ply of carbon fibre reinforced plastic laminates glued together with epoxy resin and baked in large autoclaves or ovens.

The fire filled the cabin of the airliner, for which Qantas holds orders for 50, with black smoke, and the 42 people on board escaped down emergency slides before the town’s fire tenders extinguished it.

The Laredo incident happened shortly after revelations that the much delayed 787 program was under further review because of a need to strip parts out of a large number of fully or party assembled Dreamliners to reach components which will also have to be replaced in order to meet certification requirements.

Qantas was originally promised first deliveries of the initial 787 model, the 787-8, in August 2008, but the jet only made its first flight in December 2009. Those jets were to allow the Qantas group to replace its fleet of 26 aged and increasingly less reliable 767s used mainly on its Cityflyer services, as well as to expand Jetstar’s long haul reach to Europe and North America to reclaim or develop routes that Qantas says cannot support its full service product.

In July, Qantas and Boeing announced a new delivery timetable in which Jetstar would start receiving 787-8s in June 2012 and both Qantas and Jetstar would get the more capable and larger Dreamliner model, the 787-9, from mid 2014. In a fleet shuffle, Qantas would — from mid 2012 — bring back comparatively new Airbus A330-200s it had deployed with Jetstar to replace its aged 767s pending the replacement of all of the A330s by Dreamliners further into the future.

The Laredo incident, and the subsequent and continued grounding of the yet uncertified Dreamliner test fleet, and the prolonged loss of its A380 capacity both weigh on Qantas.

The power panel that caught fire in the 787 was the unit that distributes electricity from its left hand engine through the jet’s systems, including cabin pressurisation. When it failed the RAT, or ram air turbine, located behind a hatch on the underside of the jet popped open to augment the power being generated by the right hand engine. It looks like a small propeller on a tether deployed in the slipstream.

The RAT’s appearance on any flight is a sure fire sign of a jet in grave trouble.

Peter Fray

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