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New Boeing whistleblower alleges serious structural flaws on 787 and 777 jets

By Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times
Published: April 14, 2024, 6:04am

A Boeing quality engineer went public Tuesday with damaging allegations that the jet-maker took manufacturing shortcuts to increase production rates that leave potentially serious structural flaws on its 787 and 777 widebody planes.

The Boeing engineer, Sam Salehpour, alleged that almost 1,000 787s and about 400 777s currently flying are at risk of premature fatigue damage and structural failure.

On January 19, lawyers for Salehpour wrote a letter detailing his allegations to Mike Whitaker, head of the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency said Tuesday it is investigating the claims.

“We thoroughly investigate all safety reports,” said FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor.

Salehpour will speak next week at a Senate hearing convened by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., “to examine Boeing’s broken safety culture, focusing on firsthand accounts.”

Boeing said it is in discussions and will cooperate with Blumenthal’s committee and has “offered to provide documents, testimony, and technical briefings.”

Salehpour spoke in a virtual news conference with his lawyers Tuesday. His lawyers said documents will be presented at the Senate hearing to substantiate his allegations.

Boeing, facing rising public alarm about multiple safety issues, responded with a detailed rebuttal to the 787 allegations.

“We are fully confident in the 787 Dreamliner,” Boeing said. “These claims about the structural integrity of the 787 are inaccurate.”

Boeing said extensive testing and analysis, shared with the FAA, has shown that the issues raised by Salehpour “do not present any safety concerns and the aircraft will maintain its service life over several decades.”

As for allegations on the 777, Boeing said: “We are fully confident in the safety and durability of the 777 family. These claims are inaccurate.”

Tiny gaps left unfilled

Salehpour came to the U.S. from Iran in 1973 to go to college and said he has worked as an aerospace engineer for 40 years. At Boeing, he’s worked since 2007 as a contractor and as a direct employee.

“I love this country … And I love my work at Boeing and the opportunities that I have been given,” he said at the news conference. “I’m doing this not because I want Boeing to fail, but because I want it to succeed and prevent crashes from happening.”

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The alleged flaws in the 787 Dreamliners relate to the tiny gaps at the joins of the fuselage sections that Boeing initially found in 2020. The discovery led Boeing tolargely halt deliveries for almost two years at a projected cost of $6.3 billion as it worked to correct the flaws.

In August 2022, the FAA approved the fix Boeing had developed and allowed 787 deliveries to resume.

The safety agency’s approval came after a deep investigation of Boeing’s manufacturing process.

“We didn’t approve the return to deliveries until we were convinced that Boeing’s corrective actions were effective,” the FAA’s Gregor said.

Furthermore, ever since deliveries resumed, the FAA has been inspecting every individual 787 before issuing an Airworthiness Certificate that allows it to be delivered to an airline.

Boeing in a statement said “we slowed production and stopped delivering 787s for nearly two years to take our time to get things right and ensure each met our exacting engineering specifications.”

Yet Salehpour said Tuesday the solution Boeing developed hid rather than fixed the problem.

He said that early in the 787 program, from 2012 on, engineers allowed the fuselage sections to be pushed together during final assembly with excessive force before measuring for gaps, so as “to make it appear like the gaps didn’t exist.”

Even after the 2020 delivery stoppage this continued, he claims, based on his work on the program in 2021.

“I repeatedly produced reports for my supervisors and management based on Boeing’s own data demonstrating that the gaps in the 787 were not being properly measured,” Salehpour said.

As a result, he said, the small filler pieces of material used to fill gaps — known as shims — were in many cases not inserted.

As the carbon composite fuselage skin, metal fasteners and joint fittings expand and contract with temperature changes during a flight, such unfilled gaps would theoretically allow the joined sections to move slightly relative to one another.

Over time, this can cause excessive wear and cause premature failure of the structure, Salehpour said. “It can cause a catastrophic failure.”

Shimming, which means inserting these small, precisely sized pieces to fill gaps greater than five thousandths of an inch, or “5 thou,” is a widely accepted practice in manufacturing airplanes to prevent such structural stresses.

One of Salehpour’s lawyers, Lisa Banks, added that “shimming is a time-consuming process however. And, of course, time is money.”

Saleh further alleged that during drilling of fastener holes at the fuselage section joins, Boeing assumed that because of the force used to pull the sections together there was no gap for debris from the drilling to fall into.

With that assumption, there is no need to separate the parts after the drilling to clean out debris, smooth off the edges of the holes and the reassemble the sections.

“This expedites the assembly process and significantly reduces cost,” the letter from Salehpour’s lawyers told the FAA.

But Salehpour claims that assumption that any gaps were less than 5 thou and would be free of debris was wrong, based on inaccurate measurements that failed to account for the fact that the gaps are larger around holes drilled further from the edge of the join.

“Boeing’s use of this approach has resulted in drilling debris being left in the interfaces of approximately 80%” of the joins in the forward and rear fuselage sections of the 787s, the letter to the FAA states.

Salehpour said the 80% data point is a Boeing figure that came from its testing and inspection of 28 sample planes built after 2020.

Boeing: The 787 gaps pose no risk

Boeing insists that the gaps it fixed on the 787 production airplanes during the delivery halt never presented a near-term safety risk.

Nevertheless, Boeing said they had to be fixed on those jets in the factory because they exceeded the specification provided when the 787 was certified and it cannot knowingly deliver an airplane that doesn’t conform to that standard.

As for the 787s that had already been delivered previously with these out-of-conformance gaps and are today flying around the world — about 980 jets — Boeing studied whether there is a long-term risk that their airframes could age more quickly and potentially fail. It concluded there is not.

This was based largely on the testing that was done during certification when one of the first 787s built was tested for long-term structural fatigue by attaching strain gauges and loads to the airframe and simulating on the ground the physical stresses of repeated flights.

From 2010 to 2015, that airplane went through 165,000 simulated cycles of takeoffs, pressurizations, depressurizations and landings — “about 3.75 times the jet’s designed lifespan of 44,000 cycles, with no findings of fatigue,” Boeing said.

The 787s currently in service around the globe currently fly about 600 cycles per year on average. Boeing said a 787 delivered in 2012 has the highest cycles of any delivered to date: about 16,500 flights.

“Based on the previous fuselage testing up to 165,000 cycles and Boeing’s extensive data gathering, testing, modeling and analysis from 2020 to today — shared transparently with the FAA — Boeing currently expects these issues will not change or affect the expected lifespan of the 787 fuselages,” Boeing said Tuesday.

Boeing said that after its tests and analysis of in-service data, just one component on the 787, the forward pressure bulkhead — a metal part that seals the pressurization at the front of the aircraft — “remains under analysis to understand potential stress corrosion.”

Though no stress corrosion of the part has been observed, Boeing expects to recommend an additional inspection during the airplane’s lifetime to ensure there’s no long-term degradation of that single component.

The FAA is still studying the in-service data and has not yet determined if any future actions on the fuselage gaps on the fleet of 787s flying today might be necessary.

“We continue to evaluate Boeing’s long-term corrective actions to the 787 manufacturing process as a result of the shimming issues,” the FAA said Tuesday.

Jumping on 777 panels to make them fit

Salehpour claimed that for speaking up he was retaliated against, harassed by management, shut out of meetings and even threatened with physical violence by a supervisor.

Then he was transferred out of the 787 program to the 777 program, where he said he “hoped there would be fewer problems.”

“That turns out to be not true,” he said.

On the 777 program, he said he found that a new fuselage build system that Boeing first introduced in 2015 was implemented poorly so that the large fuselage panels shipped in from Japan didn’t align properly in the assembly equipment.

This was the Fuselage Upright Build System, which Boeing engineers developed in 2014 inside a nondescript facility in Arlington. The idea was to get rid of the massive tooling equipment used inside the Everett plant to assemble the large 777 panels into fuselage sections and to automate the drilling and fastening that stitched the panels together.

It proved very problematic and in 2019 Boeing finally abandoned the automated drilling robots as impractical. Mechanics went back to stitching the panels together by hand.

However, Boeing otherwise retained the new tooling system, which Salehpour says is not perfectly compatible with the parts designed for the older tooling.

As a result, parts were misaligned and mechanics had to use brute force to fasten them together, he said.

“I viewed severe misalignments when the plane came together, which was remedied by using unmeasured and unlimited amount of force to fit the misaligned holes and parts together,” Salehpour said. “I literally saw people jumping on the pieces of the airplane to get them to align.”

Jumping up and down could deform parts enough so that the holes aligned temporarily, allowing the mechanic to hit a pin with a mallet into the hole, he said.

This “can cause damage to the parts and creates risk factors for primary structures,” Salehpour added.

Boeing did not respond to the detailed allegations about the 777.

Threats and harassment

In the news conference, Salehpour said he is partly motivated to come forward by the experience of talking to an engineer friend with whom he worked together on missile systems in the 1980s and 90s.

After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 — when all seven astronauts died after an explosion, the ultimate cause of which was later traced to flawed rubber O-rings joint seals — his friend told him that during development he had tried unsuccessfully to draw attention to the O-ring vulnerability.

He said that made him realize “I would have to speak up regardless of the cost of my career.”

Debra Katz, another of his lawyers, at the news conference said Saleh repeatedly brought up his 787 concerns with supervisors and last month submitted a formal ethics complaint internally.

“Initially, he was just told to shut up. Then he was told he was a problem. Then he was excluded from meetings, and he was excluded from taking travel with his team, said Katz. “He was barred from speaking to structural engineers. He was barred from speaking to mathematicians and others to help him understand the data.”

“At one point, his (787) boss threatened him with physical violence,” she added. “That was documented. That actually was in writing. He turned the threat of physical violence over to HR and HR did not discipline the offending supervisor.”

The company statement said “Retaliation is strictly prohibited at Boeing.”

The FAA’s Gregor said “Voluntary reporting without fear of reprisal is a critical component in aviation safety. We strongly encourage everyone in the aviation industry to share information.”

Technical details and documentation to properly assess Salehpour’s claims were not immediately available.

Yet Tuesday’s news conference opened a new front in Boeing’s struggle to calm public opinion and convince the world its airplanes are safe.

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