It's a challenge being an effective regulator with limited funds and adversaries with much deeper pockets and better political connections than your agency has.
Federal regulators certifying the safety of the 787’s lithium-ion batteries never visited the battery’s manufacturer in Japan nor the company that designed the surrounding battery system in France, according to testimony at an investigative hearing Wednesday.
That was one of the jobs entrusted to Boeing employees who were handling much of the Federal Aviation Administration‘s detail work on certification of the plane’s new technology, officials at the companies told the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) hearing.
The hearing shed new light on how regulators delegated to Boeing — and Boeing in turn delegated to its hierarchy of suppliers — much of the responsibility for testing and certifying the plane’s design.
Thales of France, which designed the battery system, was responsible for providing test data and paperwork to Boeing for certification.
But lacking any experience in certifying lithium-ion batteries, Thales in turn depended on the expertise of battery maker GS Yuasa of Japan, said Thierry Queste, a 787 project manager with the French company.
Boeing officials insisted that, despite the outsourcing to Thales of the design work for the first large lithium-ion batteries on a commercial airliner, its engineers maintained control.
“Boeing was involved and had complete oversight of the suppliers throughout,” senior Boeing systems engineer Jerry Hulm told the NTSB panel.
And FAA officials were equally adamant that their technical experts were “heavily engaged” in the 787’s certification.
However, the FAA oversight role portrayed by agency officials in many respects was indirect — almost like a back-seat driver, with Boeing up front — because of an enormous disparity in resources between the jet maker and its regulator.
The head of the Renton-based FAA certification office, Ali Bahrami, said he has 20 to 25 staff working full time on the 787. The entire airplane-certification division of the federal agency has fewer than 1,300 employees nationwide to cover at least six current new airplane-certification programs as well as ongoing airworthiness issues.
So the FAA relies in large part on 950 engineers who are paid by Boeing but work as FAA “authorized representatives” to oversee and approve the certification of the 787 and other Boeing jets.
It was such authorized reps who traveled to Japan to witness and sign off on GS Yuasa’s battery-certification tests.
“It would be virtually impossible to keep up with industry” without this extensive delegation of oversight to the manufacturer, said Dorenda Baker, director of the FAA’s national aircraft-certification unit.
The revelations came on the second day of an investigative hearing in Washington, D.C. The inquiry arose out of a battery fire on a 787 parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport in January, and an incident a week later when a smoldering battery in-flight forced an emergency landing and slide evacuation in Japan.
The FAA subsequently grounded the Dreamliner — a directive lifted only this week after three months of paralyzed airplanes.
A detailed analysis of the safety risks of the new battery system was required to prepare for certification, and company officials described it as a collaborative effort.
Boeing identified the potential impact of anything going wrong at the airplane level, and the suppliers assessed the risks of their particular pieces going wrong.
“Every step of the way, safety reviews were held by all parties,” said Thales program manager Sandra Voglino.
Those efforts — “top down and bottom up,” in Hulm’s words — combined to create projections that, for example, a battery wouldn’t create a smoke hazard more than once in 10 million flight hours. Though approved by the FAA, that assessment didn’t pan out in service. Yet Hulm believes the process wasn’t flawed.
“I don’t know, except for 20/20 hindsight, what we could have done differently,” he said.
The testing needed to win certification was also developed and carried out in close collaboration. “Many of the suppliers are in-house, sitting across the row from our engineers,” Hulm said.
Queste emphasized that Thales is “in permanent contact with Boeing, GS Yuasa and Securaplane,” the maker of the battery charger.
Interviewed by phone after the hearing, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said that her team has recently visited Thales in France and will go to Japan to visit GS Yuasa.
She said she hopes to publish a final report by year end that will reach conclusions about whether all the parties to the 787 battery system certification — including “at the regulator, contractor and subcontractor levels” — had the necessary resources and expertise to do the job.
Hersman seems determined to push hard for answers. At one point in Wednesday’s hearing, a Boeing lawyer objected to the direction of the panel’s questioning, which he characterized as speculation that the cause of the January battery incidents was a “design defect.”
Hersman politely acknowledged his point, then resumed the line of questioning.
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