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Originally published October 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 2, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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FAA dismisses criticism over 787 safety tests

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has rejected suggestions from a former Boeing engineer that it change the testing and certification...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has rejected suggestions from a former Boeing engineer that it change the testing and certification process proposed to prove the 787 Dreamliner is as safe in a crash landing as current airplanes.

In a formal response published in the Federal Register last week, the FAA summarizes and responds to two critiques of its certification proposals.

Though the critics are not identified in the FAA document, one is clearly Vince Weldon, a former high-level engineer and manager at Boeing's Phantom Works research unit, who in July wrote an 11-page letter citing safety concerns about 787 testing.

Weldon's concerns were the basis for a cable-TV news show last month presented by former CBS anchor Dan Rather.

Weldon, who was fired in 2006 under disputed circumstances after 46 years at Boeing, argued that the 787 needs stiffer tests than those Boeing has conducted.

He asserted that its composite plastic structure could shatter in a crash landing and burn with toxic fumes.

The FAA in June set out the terms for Boeing to prove that passengers in its newest jet — built from an innovative composite plastic — would have at least as good a chance of surviving a crash landing as they would in today's metal airplanes.

Boeing has now completed three physical tests using just the lower half of a 787 partial fuselage. The tests subjected it to slow crushing in a vise and ramming from a steel plate, and to a vertical drop from about 15 feet onto a steel plate.

Among other things, Weldon asked the FAA to conduct the tests, rather than have Boeing do them under FAA observation.

The FAA response said: "We consider it more effective to establish the standards and encourage [Boeing] to develop the most effective method of compliance."

To make a more direct comparison between the crash performance of a plastic fuselage versus a metal one, Weldon had called for the 787 tests to mirror the details of a drop test done in 2000 on a 737 metal-fuselage section — dropping onto concrete a complete circular fuselage section with stowbins overhead and crash-test dummies in the seats.

"While there are merits in conducting a full-scale test, there are other approaches using tests and analysis that can actually yield more data than would a single test," the FAA responded.

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Weldon also called for the dropped fuselage to then be subjected to a fire and tested for smoke penetration.

The fire issue was also raised in a separate submission to the FAA from retired aerospace engineer Derek Yates, who worked on the composites structure of the Trident missile program for Lockheed Martin and who consulted for Boeing for three years in the late 1990s.

Yates in the 1970s worked with NASA to research the replacement of epoxy plastics in aircraft interior fittings with safer phenolic plastics. That replacement was successfully implemented, Yates said.

The 787 structure is built from material that uses epoxy resin to bind carbon fibers.

In an interview, Yates said his chief concern is that the ignition temperature of composites is much lower than that of the aluminum alloys used today — about 450 to 550 degrees compared with just over 1,000 degrees — and that even the friction of a fuselage scraping the ground in a crash landing could potentially cause a fire.

But the FAA response to both sets of comments simply said that fire, smoke and toxicity hazards are being evaluated under a separate set of rules before certification.

Yates complained that this separate set will not allow for outside input on the issue and will be only a negotiation between the FAA and Boeing.

"I'm going to keep fighting this until certification," he said.

Last month, Boeing said its tests on the partial fuselage have produced sufficient data to validate the computer models used to simulate crashes.

Multiple crash scenarios will be run through the computer models over the coming five or six months to prove the FAA's requirement that the composite-plastic fuselage is as safe as a metal one in a survivable crash landing.

Boeing must obtain certification by May, when it aims to deliver the 787 to its first customer.

After he was fired, Weldon alleged in a whistle-blower complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that his dismissal was "retaliation for raising concerns throughout the last two years of his employment about the crashworthiness of the 787."

Boeing told investigators Weldon was fired for threatening a supervisor.

In January, OSHA rejected Weldon's complaint on largely technical grounds.

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

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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