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September 18, 2007
The return of Rathergate?
Dan Rather is back and he has another "scandal" based on a source that is questionable. You might not have noticed Dan's return to "journalism" because he is on a channel called HDNet, obscure enough that Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, has chosen not to offer it. But on the off chance you have one of the cable systems that offers HDNet, own an HDTV set, and have subscribed to the digital package that includes HDNet, you can watch the program tonight.
This time Dan is not going after a Republican. His target is Boeing and its latest product, the B787 Dreamliner, which has already sold over a thousand copies before its first flight, an unprecedented feat of marketing success for a new airliner. Because the 787 uses carbon fiber composite materials for the wings and fuselage and high efficiency twin engines, its fuel economy is better than other airliners. The charges to be aired tonight are squarely aimed at that carbon fiber composite fuselage.
The Seattle Times writes:
Sounds pretty serious. So who is this guy? The Times writes:
I lack both the technical qualifications and the data to make a judgment on the matter. But the FAA presumably has both, and it is happy. So if Dan's disgruntled source is correct, this would be a really big scandal.
What does Boeing's rival Airbus think about the matter? Needless to say, the company is not dumb enough to say anything when its rival finds itself so accused. But actions do speak louder than words.
Airbus first attempted to match the Dreamliner with an update of its existing and very successful A330 long range twin engine widebody airliner. New composite wings were essentially grafted onto an update of the conventional A330 fuselage made mostly of aluminum. Major customers publicly rejected that design, and a humiliated Airbus had to announce a new, improved version, the A350XWB. With a fuselage made predominantly of carbon fiber composites.
Manufacturing the entire barrel of the fuselage out of composites is very, very difficult. The bigger the piece being manufactured, the greater the technical challenge. Boeing and its suppliers have more experience than anyone else in this business. Airbus went with a compromise hybrid design: using an aluminum skeleton, and mounting smaller carbon fiber panels on it, an approach which retains much of the weight advantage, but which also raises tricky construction and maintenance questions. Combining aluminum pieces with carbon-based pieces creates a natural battery, and preventing the resulting corrosion from the electricity-producing chemical reaction would be an ongoing but not impossible challenge.
Perhaps because of customer worries over these issues, Airbus just reversed itself on this basic design issue, and recently revealed that it would scrap the aluminum framework and go with an all-composite construction for its fuselage. The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday:
Note that Airbus is still avoiding use of a a one-piece approach to barrel design. It is using a composite frame attached to composite panels, minimizing the amount of contact between aluminum and fiber components, and avoiding the challenge of a full barrel construction.
Given the stakes involved, in terms of both human life and finances, there is absolutely no room for any fudging of safety issues with the composite design. And given the competitiveness of the airliner business, such issues would be exploited.
Were the issues of substance and the ex-employee credible, a journalist with more trustworthiness than Dan Rather and an outlet with greater reach than HDNet would seem obvious choices for breaking the story.
Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker. He has been covering the commercial rivalry between Airbus and Boeing for more than two years.