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Originally published March 15, 2013 at 8:15 PM | Page modified March 16, 2013 at 9:20 AM

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Boeing looks for speedy approval after 787 battery tests

A top company engineer said the necessary certification tests should be completed by Boeing in “the next week or two” and that afterward he expects “timely” FAA approval of the fix.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Boeing seems convinced it can get a speedy Federal Aviation Adminstration go-ahead to retrofit the first of its grounded 787 Dreamliners with beefed-up lithium-ion battery systems and have at least a few flying as soon as next month.

A top company engineer said Friday the necessary certification tests should be completed by Boeing in “the next week or two” and that afterward he expects “timely” FAA approval of the fix.

Ron Hinderberger, Boeing vice president of 787-8 engineering, said in a teleconference that certification tests started last week and he expects to get the rest finished “very quickly.” His comment came a day after Boeing unveiled its 787 battery fix at a news conference in Tokyo.

Once the tests are done, the FAA will go through the test reports and data. But Hinderberger said the regulatory agency has already agreed that Boeing’s planned testing and analysis will be “sufficient to show compliance with the regulations.”

He said Boeing has been doing tests for weeks, refining its solution, and that most of the certification tests it needs to do will simply be reruns of tests already run successfully.

There will be just a single flight test, with the remaining tests done either in a lab or in a Dreamliner parked at Paine Field in Everett.

Hinderberger reiterated the assertions of top Boeing executives a day earlier that played down the two events that led to the grounding: the battery fire in a 787 parked on the ground in Boston and the smoldering of a battery on a 787 flight in Japan.

He said that the fire in Boston consisted of small flames outside the blue battery box, but that “there was not a fire inside the blue box.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) — which is investigating the Boston battery fire — disagreed Friday that this is an established fact.

The NTSB detailed in its interim report earlier this month that the temperature inside the blue box reached at least 550 degrees F, and it displayed photos of the charred and blackened innards of the battery.

NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said in an interview after Hinderberger’s briefing that his agency has “never ruled out” the possibility of a fire inside the battery.

Boeing’s optimism about a quick approval rests particularly on the conviction that its fix makes flames impossible.

Its engineers have designed 1/8th-inch stainless-steel boxes to enclose each of the two main lithium-ion batteries on the airplane.

A 1-inch-diameter titanium tube will vent any gases from each box directly outside through a new hole cut in the airplane’s fuselage.

The sucking away of oxygen from inside the box will preclude any possibility of a fire on the airplane, Boeing asserts.

Hinderberger also provided new details on the tightened quality controls Boeing will implement at the GS Yuasa plant in Japan where the batteries are manufactured.

He said four new or revised tests have been added to screen production of the battery cells, charting over time the voltage of each cell coming off the factory line.

“We would expect to reject a higher percentage of those,” Hinderberger said.

Boeing has tracked the manufacturing records of all the cells in all 115 batteries now in service, and Hinderberger said that data identifies which cells wouldn’t pass the new tests.

Those cells will be rejected and the batteries will then be refurbished, he said. They will then undergo the same tests as newly manufactured batteries before being reinstalled on jets.

The new enclosure boxes on the two big lithium-ion batteries on each Dreamliner add a total of 150 pounds weight, Boeing said.

In the briefing in Japan, Boeing Vice President Mike Sinnett conceded that with this modification Boeing lost the expected benefit that a lithium-ion battery would be smaller and lighter.

“That becomes more of a wash,” Sinnett said, while insisting that nevertheless other benefits of lithium-ion technology make it still the right choice.

“The battery provides a lot of power on the ground where we need it, it’s good from a charging perspective, it’s great from a shelf-life perspective,” Sinnett said.

Boeing’s share price has been climbing steadily this month as executives indicated they anticipated a relatively quick fix for the battery problems.

Boeing’s shares started the year at $77.69. On Friday, the stock closed at a five-year high of $86.43, up 2.14 percent on a day when all the major share price indexes were down.

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

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