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Fire aboard empty 787 Dreamliner prompts investigation

By Aaron Cooper, CNN
January 8, 2013 -- Updated 1045 GMT (1845 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Firefighters battle smoke in cabin of Japan Airlines jet in Boston
  • No passengers aboard; 787 had just arrived from Tokyo
  • Early focus is on battery unit that powers systems on ground
  • Dreamliner has had other glitches since delivery to airlines in 2011

(CNN) -- A smoky fire broke out aboard an empty Japan Airlines 787 Dreamliner in Boston on Monday in the latest glitch for the much-heralded Boeing model.

The Japan Airlines plane, which had arrived at Logan Airport from Tokyo at 10 a.m., was being prepared for a noon departure at a gate when a maintenance worker noticed smoke and called emergency crews.

"Upon arrival, we observed a heavy smoke condition in the entire cabin," said Bob Donahue, chief of the Massport Fire Rescue Department. "We found a fire condition about midship in the avionics compartment underneath. We advanced an aggressive, offensive fire attack."

Batteries used to start the auxiliary power unit, which provides electricity for ground operations, are located in the small area in the belly of the plane.

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"We did have a flare-up. There was a small explosion -- one of the batteries -- and we again went in with a secondary attack and were again able to knock it down," Donahue said.

Japan Airlines confirmed the cause of the fire in a news release. It said 172 passengers and 11 crew members had been on the plane. Everyone had disembarked when the fire was discovered, the airline said.

One firefighter had a skin irritation from the material used to put the fire out, but no one else was injured.

Donahue says it's not likely this could have happened during flight when the auxiliary power unit was not in use.

"This is an extremely serious situation," Kevin Hiatt, a former pilot and vice president with the Flight Safety Foundation, told CNN. "If there is any problem I think you will see something come out very shortly."

Monday's incident is not the first mechanical problem for the 787 series, which was delivered to airlines starting in 2011 after years of manufacturing delays and cost overruns. The JAL plane was delivered in December.

In 2010, fire caused a 787 test flight to lose primary electrical power while flying from Yuma, Arizona, to Laredo, Texas. It landed safely using backup systems and the 42 people aboard evacuated using emergency slides.

An engine failed during tests on the ground in South Carolina in July 2012 and inspectors found a similar problem on another aircraft in September.

In December, another relatively new 787 operated by United Airlines diverted safely to New Orleans after experiencing mechanical problems.

"The 787, being a new airplane, does have teething problems," John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told CNN.

Goglia, a former airline mechanic, said it is common for new planes to have "these kinds of problems."

While serious, Hiatt did not think these issues are a sign of larger concerns with the 787 program.

"There does not appear to be a common thread in the problems the planes have seen," he told CNN. "If they had another situation, a fire, that was in that same locality you'd start to say yes, we've got something else that is going on."

Boeing said it was investigating the incident and noted it was too early to draw any parallels.

"We need to give our technical teams time to really understand the event," Lori Gunter, spokeswoman for the 787 program, said in a statement.

"Anything offered now would be speculation and likely incorrect. It's just too early to make comparisons to other events or to draw conclusions."

The NTSB sent a team to investigate the incident.

"It's one of our 'most wanted list' issues, fire in transportation," Eric Weiss, a board spokesman, said.

CNN's Yoko Wakatsuki contributed to this report.

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