Thursday, 11 November 2010

Pushing the limits of the possible

Rolls-Royce powered Airbus A380's have been in the news over the last week after a suspected fire caused an uncontained engine failure during a Quantas flight.

However, Boeing have also suffered a significant setback. On Tuesday, one of their flight-test 787s had to make an emergency landing when smoke entered the main cabin. The fire caused the primary flight instruments and auto-throttle to fail. Emergency chutes were deployed after landing to allow the 42 engineers on board to evacuate. Fortunately, no-one was injured during the incident.

This can only be seen as a significant setback to Boeing. Rumours had already been circulating about a further delay to the 787 entering service, and a fire that causes the primary flight instruments to fail can only add pressure to the schedule. Whilst this plane was probably highly instrumented, and therefore non-standard, any fire will have to be thoroughly investigated before flight tests can continue.

Both Rolls Royce and Boeing are pushing the limits of the possible with their products. The reliability of a modern jet engine is amazing given the conditions under which they have to perform. When failures happen (as they do very infrequently), most of the time they do not put the aircraft at risk.

Boeing are facing equivalent technological challenges with the 787. The 787 is a fairly aggressive design, using new materials and techniques to create a passenger plane that is a generational jump from any other flying. This has been the cause of most of the nearly three-year delay that they have already faced.

I wish both Rolls Royce and Boeing the best of luck in finding - and fixing - the problems they are facing.

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