ANA, JAL ground all 787s after emergency landing

Smoke in the cockpit latest in series of woes for new jetliner

Kyodo, AP, Bloomberg

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner jet operated by All Nippon Airways made an emergency landing Wednesday morning at Takamatsu Airport in Kagawa Prefecture due to smoke in the cockpit, with all 137 on board the domestic flight safely evacuating the plane.

With the incident following hard on the heels of a series of problems involving the new Boeing model, ANA said it was grounding its fleet of 17 Dreamliners for inspections.

Japan Airlines also said it will ground its seven Boeing 787s for the time being to conduct emergency checks.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry said it views Wednesday’s occurrence as a serious incident that could have led to an accident, and the Japan Transport Safety Board dispatched five inspectors to the airport.

“These problems must be fully investigated,” transport minister Akihiro Ota said.

According to ANA, a case of the main lithium-ion batteries had turned black, leaking electrolytic liquid in a compartment for electronics systems located under the cockpit.

GS Yuasa Corp., the Japanese company that supplies all the lithium-ion batteries for the 787, said it will dispatch three officials to Takamatsu Airport for the investigation.

ANA Flight 692 landed at Takamatsu Airport around 8:45 a.m. after smoke was detected inside the aircraft, which had left Yamaguchi Ube Airport in Yamaguchi Prefecture about 35 minutes earlier bound for Haneda airport in Tokyo, according to ANA officials and local authorities.

The 129 passengers evacuated using emergency chutes, and the airport was closed from 8:58 a.m., according to the officials.

One passenger complained of pain in the lower back and was taken to a hospital, and several others sustained minor injuries, such as abrasions while descending on the chutes, ANA and the local fire department said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said about five people were slightly injured.

Shortly after the plane took off from Yamaguchi Ube at around 8:10 a.m., a device in the cockpit indicated battery problems and one of the pilots smelled an abnormal odor, officials said.

Takamatsu Airport officials said the pilot notified the airport’s office prior to making the emergency landing that the cockpit had begun reeking of smoke.

A 40-year-old man who was aboard the flight said he began to smell an odor after drinks were served. Another passenger said smoke filled the plane when the escape chutes were discharged and some people were injured because they could not land properly after sliding down to the surface.

After the incident, ANA said it was immediately suspending the operations of its Dreamliners until their safety can be confirmed, and JAL soon followed suit.

ANA Senior Executive Vice President Osamu Shinobe apologized for the incident at a hastily convened news conference at Haneda airport.

Some aviation analysts say there may be problems with the aircraft’s main battery, housed in an electronic equipment compartment beneath the cockpit, or the wiring surrounding it.

The grounding in Japan was the first for the 787, whose problems had been brushed off by Boeing as teething pains for a new aircraft.

The transport ministry had already started a separate inspection Monday on another 787, operated by JAL, which had leaked fuel at Narita International Airport after flying back from Boston, where it had also leaked fuel.

A fire ignited Jan. 7 in the battery pack of an auxiliary power unit of a JAL 787 empty of passengers as the plane sat on the tarmac at Boston’s Logan International Airport. It took firefighters 40 minutes to put out the blaze.

ANA canceled a domestic flight to Tokyo on Jan. 9 after a computer wrongly indicated there was a problem with the Boeing 787’s brakes. Two days later, the carrier reported two new cases of problems, a minor fuel leak and a cracked windscreen in a 787 cockpit.

The 787 relies more than any other modern airliner on electrical signals to help power nearly everything the plane does. It’s also the first Boeing plane to use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which charge faster than other airplane batteries and can be molded to space-saving shapes.

The plane is made with lightweight composite materials instead of aluminum.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement it is “monitoring a preliminary report of an incident in Japan earlier today involving a Boeing 787.”It said the incident will be included in the comprehensive review the FAA began last week of the 787 critical systems, including design, manufacture and assembly. U.S. government officials were quick to say the plane is safe — nearly 50 of them are in service now.

Boeing has said that various technical problems are to be expected in the early days of any aircraft model.

“Boeing is aware of the diversion of a 787 operated by ANA to Takamatsu in western Japan. We will be working with our customer and the appropriate regulatory agencies,” Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said.

Boeing chose lithium-ion batteries for the 787, which uses five times more electricity than similar jets, because they hold more energy and can be quickly recharged, Mike Sinnett, chief 787 project engineer, said.

In a worst-case scenario in which the batteries do burn, they are designed to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the aircraft, Sinnett said.

If the jet is airborne, smoke is supposed to be vented out of the compartment so that it doesn’t reach the cabin, he said, and all of the battery cells can ignite without harming the plane’s ability to stay aloft.

Aviation safety expert John Goglia, a former U.S. National Transportation Safety Board member, said the ANA pilot made the right choice.

“They were being very prudent in making the emergency landing even though there’s been no information released so far that indicates any of these issues are related,” he said.

People shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the 787 is a flawed jet, especially with only sketchy information available about the latest incident, said Michael Barr, an instructor at the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security Program.

“It’s too early to say that the design of this airplane is to the point where it needs to be grounded,” Barr said. “But it is very disconcerting that an airplane with this much testing and evaluation is having these types of problems.”