Plastic Airplanes and the Balance of Payments

I rarely take much interest in what is going on in the airline industry, as I view airline travel as one of life’s necessary evils (private aviation rules as far as I am concerned, I only wish that I could personally afford it.) The massive people carriers of today are truly wondrous works of engineering-scale; all of them are designed to not require hangarage when they are rarely parked for more than a brief stop-over at a gate, while the weights that they are designed to carry, day-in-day-out for usually up to 80,000 to 90,000 hours over the duration of their service life is frankly stupendous. An issue from that side of the aviation industry that I am not in-tune with, but that now has me flustered under the collar at the moment, is the airline industry’s new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

The Dreamliner is supposed to be all of these things: an engineering marvel, an economic game-changer, the most efficient airliner-ever, the fastest-selling airliner, etc, etc. However it is very late into entering into service with the launch airline customers; it leaks fuel, it appears to catch fire; and is it now also grounded until which time in the future that the FAA deems it safe to go back to service.

For me, I have always believed that Boeing and Safety were both synonymous with each other. Even though the company carries the name of a man from the late nineteenth century, I have always felt that this name both labels and epitomises what is the best and safest airline-size aircraft, ever in existence. Now however, there is the possibility that I might be proved wrong in this belief.

To maintain the integrity of producing a truly revolutionary aircraft, Boeing engineers decided that the application of Japanese built Lithium Cobalt Oxide battery technology was to be an advantage for them. Some feel that this type of battery has still yet to be perfected. I remember the stories from the old-timers who remembered when Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cad) batteries first became the #1 choice for business jet and turbo-prop aircraft. Thermal runaway events with Ni-Cads were quite common in the early biz-jets. Stories abound of pilots landing and running to the outside rear compartment of a Lear or Falcon to try and remove offending runaway battery before it melted itself apart and through the compartment floor. I don’t recall ever hearing that an aircraft was lost because it’s battery melted away. Therefore battery fires are not, in my mind the biggest safety issue for me to have sufficient reason to refuse to board a Boeing, or in-fact any other aircraft.

What bothers me is the propensity with which the Dreamliner appears to leak fuel. I do not have any inside information about the faulty or incorrectly installed Eaton fuel connectors and valves, but as an outsider I do have to wonder if the fuel plumbing system has leaks because of the flexibility of the carbon fibre structure, moving differently during flight, than which good-old fashioned aluminium does? I always joke that the only time that a Merlin or an older Hawker does not leak fuel is when the aircraft is empty; probably because it all leaked out! Having an aircraft of this size, technology, and age, i.e. cutting-edge designs that are pushing the boundaries of aircraft manufacture beyond what we are used to, and then leaking like an old Hawker usually does, is really not acceptable in my mind.

The concept of spiral wound or vacuum formed carbon fibre manufacturing has long been a holy grail that aircraft manufacturers have pushed for their engineering departments to tackle head-on. The rewards are certainly beacon of light to accountants and engineers alike. Unfortunately, apart from the small successes found by several manufacturers where certain main structural components of an aircraft have had aluminium replaced with carbon fibre, for example the horizontal stabilizer and flight controls on all new Dassault Falcon aircraft, the manufacture of an entire aircraft from this material is obvious to an outsider like me, as being much too risky for any manufacturer that is foolhardy enough to bank their entire future on. Examples of failed or discontinued aircraft are beginning to make a lengthy tome in aviation history:

LearFan, Starship, Visionair Vantage, Adam 700, Grob Spn, Spectrum Freedom and Independence, the Diamond Jet, Premier, and Hawker 4000.

There are others that are not mentioned on my list however memory fails me in their recollection...maybe you can add some for me in the comments section below?

The fact is that the elimination of aluminium, rivets, and others fasteners, along with the massive reduction in man-hours to assemble an aluminium aircraft structure, appears to add-up to an incredibly attractive cost saving for a manufacturer; the raw material cost and processes required to make an equivalent structure from carbon fibre, appear to be extremely costly, and might even exceed the cost of a conventionally made metal aircraft.

The Dreamliner is set to make a significant entry into the aviation history books. I am worried though that the Dreamliner might write its’ own history book entry negatively instead. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that Boeing aircraft - from the 707 on-up are some of the safest and best design aircraft ever to grace the skies. I can’t say that I feel entirely safe when I ride an Airbus, especially in heavy-weather. With this said, I shall continue my attitude of scepticism regarding all-plastic airplanes, until I see the Dreamliner still plying the commercial jet routes of the world well past 2033.

My fear of the possible misplaced allure of plastic that has beckoned to the engineers and management at Boeing, also leads me to start wondering about how the balance of payments in this country’s economy will hold up if Boeing’s bet on plastic turns out very badly wrong?

According to Fortune Magazine’s “Fortune 500” list, Boeing is ranked at #39; with Exxon-Mobile and Walmart taking spots #1 & #2 respectively. The $1.48 Trillion U.S. Dollars export of tangible goods includes $87.5 Billion, or 6% of all ‘balance of payments’ contribution that the manufacture and export of ‘aircraft’ and ‘spacecraft’ contribute to our economy. The Dreamliner sells in two versions: the 787-8 for $206.8 Million U.S.D., and the 787-9 for $243.6 Million U.S.D. According to recent Boeing figures, 850 Dreamliners have been sold since it was first brought to market. By my reckoning that adds up to $195.5 Billion U.S. Dollars, which is more than twice the current annual sales contribution derived from the export of aircraft today. What a catastrophe it would be, if the Dreamliners’ name is added to the list of failed plastic birds?

Fast on the heels of the Dreamliner, is the Arbus A350, which too is a carbon-fibre design. The battle that is slowly unfolding before our eyes is possibly a little too exciting for my feeble post-GFC stomach to not cramp-up.

What are your thoughts?

Also, again can you remember any other plastic aircraft that should be added to the list of failures?
  • LearFan
  • Starship
  • Visionair Vantage
  • Adam A700
  • Grob Spn
  • Spectrum Freedom and Independence
  • Diamond Jet
  • Premier
  • Hawker 4000