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:
A former senior aerospace engineer at Boeing's Phantom Works research unit, fired last year under disputed circumstances, is going public with concerns that the new 787 Dreamliner is unsafe.

Forty-six-year veteran Vince Weldon contends that in a crash landing that would be survivable in a metal airplane, the new jet's innovative composite plastic materials will shatter too easily and burn with toxic fumes. He backs up his views with e-mails from engineering colleagues at Boeing and claims the company isn't doing enough to test the plane's crashworthiness.
Sounds pretty serious. So who is this guy? The Times writes:
Weldon was fired in July 2006. He alleged in a whistle-blower complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that the firing was "retaliation for raising concerns throughout the last two years of his employment about the crashworthiness of the 787."

But according to a summary of OSHA's findings, Boeing told investigators Weldon was fired for threatening a supervisor, specifically for stating he wanted to hang the African-American executive "on a meat hook" and that he "wouldn't mind" seeing a noose around the executive's neck.

Weldon denied to OSHA investigators that he had referred to a noose and said the "meat hook" reference had not been a threat.

OSHA dismissed Weldon's claim, denying him whistle-blower status largely on the grounds that Boeing's 787 design does not violate any FAA regulations or standards.
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:

For months, Airbus had been telling customers that attaching skin panels made of carbon-fiber composites to an aluminum-alloy skeleton was superior to Boeing's method of making both the frame and fuselage of the Dreamliner from composites.

But Airbus, a unit of Franco-German European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., began to rethink its position after encountering resistance from customers who questioned whether the A350 would be more difficult to maintain than the Dreamliner.

"We thought the design we had was very good, but this one is even better," said John Leahy, Airbus chief operating officer for customers. Airbus officials say the switch will offer crucial weight savings.

An Airbus spokesman played down the change as "just part of the normal refinement" that occurs when an aircraft is being developed. Airbus told potential customers of the plans during a recent update on the A350 program.
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.
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