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Is the Dreamliner another Comet? Author of book on Britain's jet nightmare give his verdict


By Noel Young, Correspondent

January 19, 2013 | 4 min read

It was the airliner that Britain believed would give it a huge lead in civil aviation after the Second World war: the De Havilland Comet. Then less than a year, after its 1952 launch, three Comets blew apart in the sky, killing everyone aboard.

Comet: The dream that died

This week Sam Howe Vehovek, author of a book about the ill-fated plane, says he has had a "surprising number of e-mails and calls" asking roughly the same question: Is Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, now grounded after battery fires, another Comet?

"The short answer is no," says Vehovek writing for Bloomberg. The Dreamliner, as Boeing Co. (BA) calls the 787, isn’t the de Havilland Comet, he insists.

"The Comet, about which I wrote a book a few years ago, was the world’s first jetliner, a spectacularly conceived and tragically doomed technological leap into the future. "

That book was entitled Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World.

Verhovek wrote for Bloomberg, " The U.K.- made Comet amazed the world when it started carrying passengers in 1952, flying almost twice as fast and twice as high as any propeller-driven airliner," Then came the three disasters.

At first the weather was blamed. Then finally it emerged that the plane's square windows causing metal fatigue were the culprit . A redesigned Comet with oval windows would eventually take to the skies safely, though by that time Boeing had moved ahead with its Stratoliner.

But in Vehovek's view, there is no way the 787 fits into the Comet category The Dreamliner, he says , is an advanced though hardly revolutionary new airplane. But it has a serious flaw, "and one that needs to be fixed," At least two of the Japanese-made lithium-ion batteries that supply electrical power have malfunctioned.

"No passenger should be allowed aboard a Dreamliner until this problem is solved, which it will be," said Verhovek.

"But talk of the Dreamliner as a debacle -- a “Nightmareliner,” as some headlines put it --- is far more overheated than the plane’s bum batteries.

"Airlines that go first with a new model, whether for the prestige or to leverage technological advances such as fuel savings, often pay a price for the novelty as problems crop up requiring a fix that takes the plane out of service, usually for only a week or two.

A battery fire aboard a Dreamliner is unacceptable. But that does not mean an incident would be catastrophic: The Dreamliner is designed to survive such a fire, by containing it to a specific area and venting the smoke outside while the cabin air-pressure system protects passengers and crew.

By this measure, the Dreamliner’s woes are within reason. Regulators have done the right thing by grounding the fleet. Boeing and its battery supplier need to take steps to assure the public that these batteries are safe.

"The Dreamliner project could still turn into a fiasco or, God forbid, a disaster, if more problems crop up or compound." But, Verhovek tell his Bloomberg readers, "The strong odds remain that the jetliner will be what Boeing intends it to be: a triumph, a next-generation, fuel-efficient, ultracomfortable airliner that passengers will seek out, not seek to avoid."

Of the tragic Comet, he says, "Hubris prevented a more rational investigation of its deadly flaw. U.K. aviation authorities variously pointed to freak weather, sabotage and pilot error as possible reasons for Comet crashes; anything to spare blaming the plane itself. "


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