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Originally published February 4, 2013 at 2:59 PM | Page modified February 5, 2013 at 12:25 PM

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FAA may soon allow Boeing 787 test flights

The FAA is likely to grant permission for Boeing to fly the 787 Dreamliner as early as this week on test flights only. Boeing wants to gather data on the operation of the battery system in flight and may test a potential fix. But the grounding of passenger flights will continue, probably for weeks.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Recent 787 battery events

Jan. 7: A fire breaks out in a Japan Airlines 787 on the ground in Boston; the National Transportation Safety Board finds “severe fire damage” in a lithium-ion battery.

Jan. 16: An All Nippon Airways 787 makes an emergency landing in Japan after the cockpit crew smells smoke. The two Japanese airlines ground their 787 fleets.

• The Federal Aviation Administration grounds 787s pending further investigation.

Monday: Boeing asks the FAA for permission to test the 787 battery during flight.

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing confirmed Monday that the federal regulator is evaluating a request from the jet-maker to do test flights of its 787 Dreamliner.

The FAA is likely to grant Boeing’s request as early as this week, and a 787 could fly again later this week, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

The initial flight tests will gather data on the operation of the troubled lithium-ion battery system, the cause of the worldwide fleet grounding that’s into its third week.

Boeing also wants to test a potential fix, the sources said.

However, 787 passenger flights won’t resume soon. In airline service, the Dreamliner is still likely to stay grounded for weeks, if not months, two sources said.

Even when Boeing arrives at a workable fix, its engineers will have to design, build and thoroughly test the solution.

The FAA ordered the grounding after two serious 787 battery incidents just over a week apart.

First, a battery fire broke out on a parked 787 in Boston in early January. In the second incident, a smoldering battery forced a jet in flight to make an emergency landing in Japan.

One fix Boeing is looking at closely is a way to strengthen the lithium-ion battery’s ability to contain any internal overheating and to improve the venting system whereby hot liquid or gaseous products exit the battery box and are directed outside the airplane, two sources said.

However, the initial flights will simply gather data on how the battery is affected by changes in temperature during the flight cycle as well as the impact of vibrations during landing and takeoff.

According to an industry source, one theory Boeing is investigating is that moisture getting inside the battery may have contributed to the recent incidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is investigating the Boston fire, has so far given no indication it has determined the root cause.

The return to the air, even if only for test flights, would be the first glimmer of hope Boeing is on its way to resolving the jet’s technical problems.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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