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updated: 11/10/2010 3:44 PM

Boeing delays more 787 test flights, shares drop

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  • Firefighters and airport officials investigate the scene of an incident involving a Boeing 787 jetliner at the Laredo International Airport Tuesday.

    Firefighters and airport officials investigate the scene of an incident involving a Boeing 787 jetliner at the Laredo International Airport Tuesday.
    Associated Press

 
Bloomberg News

Boeing Co. suspended flights of the 787 Dreamliner while it investigates why a fire erupted on one of the six test jets, knocking out some systems on the new, all- electric plane and forcing an emergency landing in Texas.

Flames broke out yesterday in an electrical equipment bay in the rear of the cabin as the 787 neared the Laredo, Texas, airport, and some controls and cockpit displays failed, said a person with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be identified because details aren't public. The jet, carrying 42 people, touched down safely.

"We have decided that until we better understand the events that happened that we're not going to schedule any flight tests," Lori Gunter, a Boeing spokeswoman, said today in an interview. "Whether that understanding comes within the next few hours or it takes longer than that, we just don't know."

The episode refocuses attention on a plane whose commercial debut has been delayed six times as Chicago-based Boeing struggles with new materials, parts shortages, redesign work and a greater reliance on suppliers. The plastic-composite 787 uses more electric power than traditional planes to save on fuel.

Yesterday's fire extended a series of aircraft malfunctions over the past week, including an emergency landing in Singapore after an engine explosion sent shrapnel through the wing of an Airbus SAS A380 flown by Qantas Airways Ltd. A Qantas Boeing 747 suffered an engine blowout the next day.

Boeing fell $2.18, or 3.1 percent, to $67.07 at 4 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading, for the biggest drop since Aug. 24. The shares have gained 24 percent this year.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. removed Boeing from its Conviction List, citing "renewed risk" to the 787 program. Noah Poponak, a New York-based analyst, kept his "buy" rating on the stock because of the pickup in aerospace-industry demand.

Data from the Dreamliner are being brought for analysis to Seattle, the home of Boeing's commercial operations, Gunter said. The six test jets are based in Seattle and fly around the world in search of weather conditions needed for tests required by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration before the 787 can enter passenger service.

Flames were seen coming from the equipment bay as the 787 prepared to land, the person familiar with the matter said. The people onboard weren't endangered by the flames, which had gone out by the time firefighters met the jet after landing, or by the smoke, the person said.

A turbine spun by onrushing air deployed from the bottom of the jet to generate power during the incident, the person said. United Technologies Corp.'s Hamilton Sundstrand unit makes the electrical system and the turbine, which is a common backup on Boeing airliners for power-loss emergencies.

The plane remains at the Laredo International Airport, a former U.S. Air Force base now owned and operated by the city of Laredo. The 42 pilots, engineers and maintenance personnel onboard were evacuated using the jet's emergency slides.

"We are looking into the matter," said Lynn Lunsford, an FAA spokesman. "How long the plane is on the ground is entirely dependent on what is discovered."

It's too early to tell what effect the fire and emergency landing might have on testing or deliveries, Gunter said.

"Fire on a commercial aircraft needs to be taken very, very seriously," said Michel Merluzeau, a consultant with G2 Solutions LLC in Kirkland, Washington. "It might seem like an unlucky event, happening so far into flight testing, but it's a lucky break because it was so close to the ground."

Boeing is almost three years behind schedule with the 787, which is now set to enter service around February. The increased dependence on electricity instead of hydraulic and pneumatic systems is part of the new technology in a jet that also breaks with the typical use of aluminum for most of its body.

The flight's purpose was to monitor the efficiency of the plane's system for generating nitrogen, an inert gas pumped into fuel tanks to curb fire risks, according to Boeing. The pilot didn't lose primary flight displays, the company said.

The Dreamliner in Laredo is the same one that was returned to the factory for two weeks in January so workers could clean out debris found in the fuel tanks. It's being used for tests on the 787's electrical systems, autopilot controls, avionics, propulsion and stability and control.

The jet, the second one built, has made 179 test flights spanning more than 558 hours since its Dec. 22 maiden trip, according to Boeing's website.

Boeing's test-flight program has encountered other bumps since the first 787 flew on Dec. 15. That plane experienced a power surge before takeoff during tests in New Mexico in September and had to be parked while crews flew in a replacement engine from Rolls-Royce Group Plc, one of two such suppliers along with General Electric Co.

Workers also have had to make repairs on tail sections after the June discovery of flaws in horizontal stabilizers.

"Unless something is a repeat problem or there was a major structural or component failure, a test program takes such things in stride," said John Nance, a retired military and commercial pilot who is now an industry consultant in Seattle. "The 777 program had a few emergency landings as well, and it was of no consequence in the final analysis."

The 787 remains Boeing's best-selling new plane ever, with 847 orders from 56 buyers.

"Customers are far more focused on the aggregate impact of the foul-ups which are significantly delaying not only first flight but ramp-up and production rates," said Douglas Runte, managing director at Piper Jaffray & Co. in New York. "That's what's really going to hurt."