Dreamliner probe looks at condensation, wiring

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Officials investigating the fire on an Ethiopian Airlines 787 in London earlier this month are focused on how condensation in the plane and a possible pinched wire in an emergency beacon may have sparked the blaze, according to people familiar with the probe.

The US Federal Aviation Administration said at the weekend it will call for inspections of the beacons made by Honeywell on Boeing Co 787 jetliners, but stopped short of requiring airlines to disable or remove the devices, as British authorities investigating the fire had recommended.

The FAA said inspections should ensure wires are properly routed, and should look for pinched wires or signs of unusual moisture or heat. It gave no further details on how those factors may have contributed to the fire.

But one source close to the inquiry told Reuters that investigators had found a pinched wire in the casing of the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) aboard the aircraft.

The news comes after the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) on Thursday said the Honeywell beacon was the likely source of the fire, but said it was still trying to understand what ignited the plane.

The July 12 fire rekindled concern in the industry about Boeing's advanced carbon-composite Dreamliner, which was grounded for more three months this year after two incidents involving overheated lithium-ion batteries. The AAIB said the London fire was not related to those batteries.

The Honeywell ELT is delivered fully assembled and is installed by Boeing. The unit that was involved in the fire had not been opened, suggesting the pinched wire originated at the Honeywell plant, according to one person familiar with the investigation.

Honeywell declined to comment. Boeing declined to comment on the investigation but said it is working with airlines to either inspect or remove the beacons to meet regulatory guidelines.

Investigators also are trying to determine if condensation on the plane seeped into the ELT, triggering a short circuit in the unit's lithium-manganese battery, which is made by Ultralife Corp, according to people familiar with the investigation. The sources were not authorized to speak publicly because the probe is still going on.

Condensation is normal on all big airliners, but the 787 has a higher level of humidity for longer periods to make passengers more comfortable, about 15 percent for the 787 compared with 4-5 percent for conventional metal aircraft, Boeing said. The humidity can be much higher when any plane is on the ground with doors open, perhaps 95 percent, because it matches the ambient air. At cruising altitude, however the air is dry and moisture comes mostly from passengers.

Water conducts electricity, and high moisture levels could raise the likelihood of short circuits. Long-term exposure to moisture can cause corrosion on electrical wires and batteries.

Boeing's chief 787 engineer, Mike Sinnett, told Reuters that the humidity controller on the 787, made by CTT Systems AB of Sweden, is designed to "dry out the crown" or upper fuselage, of the aircraft, and prevent moisture from accumulating. Without the system "we would wind up having that water stay in the insulation."

Sinnett said the aircraft is designed to combat corrosion, and the main purpose of the CTT system is to eliminate water because the water's weight cut's fuel efficiency.

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