Investigators are likely to focus on several potential causes of a Boeing 787 engine failure Saturday that briefly shut down Charleston International Airport and has drawn international attention.
Aviation experts said they expect the National Transportation Safety Board to revisit the design of the General Electric-made GEnx-1B and look at whether mechanical failure, damage from a loose foreign object or human error could have triggered the incident.
The newly built airplane was assembled at Boeing South Carolina’s local campus.
The engine was manufactured by GE Aviation in Ohio and installed in North Charleston. The engine will be disassembled and inspected as part of the investigation involving the NTSB, Boeing and General Electric, GE said.
It’s too early to draw any conclusions, said Scott Hamilton of Issaquah, Wash.-based aviation consulting firm Leeham Co.
“The investigation obviously, number one, has to determine what happened, and then, number two, why it happened,” said Hamilton, who closely follows Boeing.
A flight crew was testing the jet when debris exited the rear of one of the jet’s two engines at Charleston International at 4:07 p.m. Saturday, according to GE and the Air Force. That sparked a fire in a nearby grassy area, forcing the airport to shut down for more than an hour while a crew swept the only available runway. No one was hurt, and the debris did not penetrate the sides of the engine.
Hamilton said the key question for NTSB, Boeing and GE will be “whether this was a one-off situation or something more serious than that.”
Rick Kennedy, a spokesman for GE Aviation, said the incident is being handled as an isolated event. He noted that about 80 airplanes are equipped with the GEnx-1B, and they remain in service.
“This is not being viewed as a fleet issue,” Kennedy said Monday. “Until we have an opportunity to tear the engine down and see what happened, there isn’t much else to tell.”
Four GE-powered 787s are now in service with Japan Airlines, and there have been no reports of mishaps.
Boeing said it was not aware of “any operational issue that would present concerns about the continued safe operation of in-service 787s powered by GE engines.”
“However, should the investigation determine a need to act, Boeing has the processes in place to take action and will do so appropriately,” the company said.
Saj Ahmad, chief analyst with strategicaeroresearch.com, said the incident demonstrates why ground tests are conducted before an aircraft’s first flight.
“The incident is a little surprising in that the GEnx engine, both on the 747-8 and 787-8 has been flying rather well, so any faults, assuming it is the engine to blame here, will likely be picked up very quickly by all parties involved in the investigation,” Ahmad wrote in an email to The Post and Courier. “Granted, any event that involves a fire and/or shutting an airport runway catches headlines, but let’s not lose fact of the sight that Japan Airlines is flying GE-powered 787s daily without incident.”
The 787 is assembled in Boeing plants in North Charleston and Everett, Wash.
Made mostly from lightweight composite materials, the fast-selling 787 is being closely watched in the commercial aircraft world. More recently the long-range passenger jet has attracted the most attention for falling three years behind in its delivery schedule than because of manufacturing glitches.
First reported by The Post and Courier over the weekend, the engine failure generated media coverage all over the world by Monday, including a live broadcast on the cable business network CNBC. “More problems for the Dreamliner,” “Power Lunch” anchorman Tyler Mathisen told viewers. Brian Williams featured the incident on “NBC Nightly News.”
Hamilton said it’s difficult to predict how long the investigation will take to complete.
“That falls into the category of ‘it depends,’ ” he said. “Sometimes causes emerge rather quickly. Sometimes they don’t.”
If the engine failed because it sucked up and ingested a loose object, “that would show up rather quickly,” Hamilton said.
A faulty part or human error also could be to blame.
“Suppose somebody didn’t torque a bolt under the specs?” he said, referring to GE’s specifications.“That’s human error.”
Aviation expert Richard Aboulafia, vice president of The Teal Group and another Boeing watcher, said the NTSB probably will determine the cause quickly. He does not expect the independent safety panel to uncover any design flaws with the GEnx-1B.
“That would have shown up a long time ago,” Aboulafia said. “It’s just a question of what happened in terms of manufacturing or airport procedures. And almost certainly, it’s not going to be the design.”
The NTSB said it dispatched an investigator to the Boeing plant Sunday. Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said the agency was back at the campus Monday.
“Because … the NTSB is still gathering information about the incident, there’s not a lot more information that we can release,” she said.
Eslinger said 787 production at the 6,000-worker North Charleston operation has not been affected.
The NTSB released few details about its visit. “We are gathering information at this time,” agency spokesman Terry Williams said Monday. “Our investigator arrived on scene yesterday, and we have our first full day on the scene today. We don’t have any other information to release at this time.”
The NTSB has classified the probe as a “regional investigation,” which is notch below a “major investigation,” according to its website.
The agency gave a brief online description of Saturday’s incident: “Boeing 787 on a pre-delivery high speed taxi test experienced engine failure, resulting in debris on active runway.”
The jet in question is the second 787 Dreamliner to be assembled in North Charleston. Known as Line Number 54 internally, it rolled out of the factory a month ago and had been parked on the nearby flight line until Saturday’s aborted preflight test.
The plane was built for Air India, which has yet to pick up its first 787 from the local plant. No delivery date has been set, but Saturday’s incident might add a new wrinkle to the already-delayed schedule.
“We are looking forward to delivering the airplane soon, but we don’t discuss details of our delivery plans and defer to our customers to provide additional details,” Boeing said in a statement Monday.
Brendan Kearney contributed to this report.
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