The National Transportation Safety Board has stepped up its investigation into the fiery engine failure that cut short a Boeing 787’s pre-delivery taxi test on Saturday.
The NTSB announcement Tuesday that it had opened a formal probe came after one of its investigators traveled to North Charleston to gather information. It represents an “escalation of assets,” board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said.
“Sometimes we need to go collect information to find a little bit more,” Hersman told The Post and Courier. “And in this case, the design is a new design, it’s young in its service life and it’s important for us to understand any failures that have been experienced.”
The agency named David Helson as the investigator in charge. A member of the NTSB’s major investigations team, Helson took a leading role in the case of US Airways Flight 1549, which landed in the Hudson River in January 2009 after a double bird strike took out its engines.
Helson will be aided by an NTSB aircraft powerplants expert and a metallurgist from the NTSB materials lab. The team will travel to the General Electric testing facility in Cincinnati this week to coordinate the disassembly and examination of the GEnx-1B engine in question, according to the agency announcement.
The NTSB will produce a report that identifies the probable cause, a spokesman said.
Early theories range from a defective part to human error. Boeing and GE spokesmen have said there are no indications that there is a broader problem with the engine type, and given its short but successful run in service so far, a design defect seems unlikely.
An anonymous source in a Wall Street Journal story this week ruled out a foreign object being sucked in through the front of the engine.
Hersman cautioned against inferring too much before her investigators “really put together the pieces of the puzzle of what happened. At this point we really need to let the investigation play out,” she said.
The incident, which left engine debris on the runway and sparked a small fire in the nearby grass, shut down Charleston International Airport for more than an hour Saturday afternoon. No one was hurt, and the debris did not penetrate the sides of the engine.
The next day, the NTSB sent an investigator with expertise in aircraft powerplants to better understand the circumstances of the event. By that time, news of the incident had spread across the globe.
Rick Kennedy, a General Electric spokesman, welcomed the “upped” NTSB involvement Tuesday. The Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing will also participate in the review.
“It’s good to have the whole team together,” Kennedy said.
Some key parts of the engine were transported Monday to Cincinnati, where they are undergoing metallurgical analysis, Kennedy said.
The rest of the engine, which suffered “significant back-end damage,” according to Kennedy, was taken off the 787’s wing Tuesday night or Wednesday morning and should arrive at GE’s research and testing center Thursday or Friday.
“You’re looking for stresses, you’re looking for any anomalies, that type of thing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hersman said the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, which are housed in one device, have been shipped from North Charleston to an NTSB lab in Washington, D.C., for analysis.
“This is the first time the NTSB has downloaded a 787 recorder,” she noted.
Gersman said so-called black box will reveal speed and braking information, as well as “any parameters associated with engine performance.” A duplicate “black box” stayed behind at the local plane-making plant but is available if necessary.
Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger declined to comment on the NTSB investigation Tuesday, after releasing a statement pledging cooperation Monday. She would not answer any further questions about the incident, such as where the red-finned plane, built for Air India, is now. A Boeing source said it is back in the building where it was assembled.
The damaged engine was designed by GE Aviation in Ohio and underwent final assembly in Durham, N.C., according to Kennedy. It was installed onto the second S.C.-built 787 Dreamliner in North Charleston this year and rolled out of the final assembly factory a month ago.
It had been parked on the campus flight line until Saturday’s aborted pre-flight test.
The Dreamliner program has been plagued by technical glitches and supply-chain hiccups, leading to more than three years of delivery delays. A gearbox issue with the Rolls-Royce engine option grounded five All Nippon Airways 787s last week, but this was the first public problem involving the GE engine.
The first S.C. 787 has flown successfully several times, and four GE-powered 787s have performed well in service with Japan Airlines.
That will motivate the investigators to work “pretty quickly,” Kennedy said, calling it an “around-the-clock operation” at GE Aviation’s headquarters.
“These guys are eager to move as quickly as they can,” he said. “They’ll move very aggressively because everybody’s eager to get to a cause on this.”
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_ brendan.