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FAA Limits 787 Flights Over Corrosion Issue

Thursday, April 19, 2018

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The Federal Aviation Administration issued an airworthiness directive Tuesday (April 17) placing limits on the flight of some Boeing 787 airplanes due to concerns about turbine corrosion, just hours before a fatal incident involving a passenger jet hammered home the potential danger of deterioration in a jet engine.

Rolls Royce Trent 1000
Chihaya Sta, public doman, via Wikimedia Commons

The new airworthiness directive comes in response to corrosion issues that put some Trent 1000 engines at risk.

The FAA notice, effective immediately, limits 787 “Dreamliner” craft with certain Trent 1000 engines to operating extended operations, or ETOPS, within 140 minutes of a suitable airport for diversion should it be necessary. The 787 previously had an ETOPS range of 330 minutes.

Sulfidation Corrosion Concerns

The change came about after instances of 787 engines failing when engine turbines cracked, an issue traced back to sulfidation corrosion. The FAA says Boeing and the engine manufacturer, Rolls-Royce, found that extended operation after a single-engine shutdown could result in further damage to the remaining engine. The new ETOPS rating will ensure that every affected 787 remains within a safe distance of an airport where it could be diverted should an engine sustain damage.

The Trent 1000 problem involves corrosion on turbines in the intermediate pressure area, due to what the Financial Times reported in 2016 were “issues with the coating” on the blades. Rolls-Royce is replacing the blades systematically; in December, the European Aviation Safety Agency placed a cyclical life limit on the blades that mandates their replacement.

Sulfidation corrosion was also blamed recently for a 2016 incident in which a passenger jet in India had to return to the airport shortly after departure when smoke filled the cabin. That plane, an ATR 72-500, much smaller than the Dreamliner, experienced the failure of a turbine blade in its Pratt & Whitney PW127M engine.

Sulfidation occurs at high temperatures and in airplanes can be brought on by the sulfur in jet fuel as well as environmental exposure. The corrosion process can be exacerbated in materials that contain niobium, which the blades in the affected Pratt & Whitney engines contained. A chromium coating can reportedly slow the corrosion.

Some Trent 900 engines, which power the Airbus A380, are reportedly also affected by the corrosion problem, but only 787s are affected by the new directive.

ETOPS Fallout

The Dreamliner was given ETOPS-330 status in 2014. There is only one higher ETOPS level under regulation today, ETOPS-370, given to the Airbus A350, a direct competitor to the 787.

An aircraft’s ETOPS rating generally affects transcontinental flight; a flight from New York’s JFK to London Heathrow can reportedly be made on a relatively direct path with a craft with an ETOPS rating of 120, but longer overseas flights could be subject to rerouting due to the 787’s ETOPS downgrade, or airlines could be forced to employ different craft to carry their longer flights.

Virgin Atlantic dreamliner
Mark Harkin, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The new ETOPS rating will ensure that every affected 787 remains within a safe distance of an airport where it could be diverted should an engine sustain damage.

Some airlines are already feeling the hurt due to the lack of available 787s as engines are taken out of service for repairs. Virgin Atlantic recently characterized the Trent 1000 situation as "seriously disruptive," according to Bloomberg. The airline reportedly has borrowed planes from sister company Delta, and is leasing two Airbus A330s formerly operated by a now-defunct airline to make up capacity with as many as three 787s down at a time.

According to Aviation International News, the engines affected power about 25 percent of all 787s in operation, including 14 operated by U.S. airlines.

Philadelphia Air Incident

On Tuesday afternoon, in an incident unrelated to the 787 issue, a Boeing 737 operated by Southwest Airlines was forced to make an emergency landing when one of its engines broke up midflight. Shrapnel broke a window in the cabin, and the resulting pressure caused injuries to one passenger that ultimately proved fatal. The plane’s pilot landed it safely in Philadelphia after the incident, and only minor injuries were reported otherwise.

The plane, Southwest flight 1380, heading from New York to Dallas, was powered by CFM56 engines, made by CFM International. According to reports, the fan blades on the engine showed signs of metal fatigue. Some CFM56 engines were affected by an FAA airworthiness directive last year after an incident in which a fan blade broke apart midflight, causing an “uncontained forward release of debris.”

There has been no indication that corrosion played a role in either CFM56 incident.


Tagged categories: Aerospace; Corrosion; Government

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