Professionalism/Vince Weldon and the 787

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Vince Weldon[edit | edit source]

Career[edit | edit source]

Vince Weldon had a long and successful career in the aerospace industry. He worked on many high-profile projects with NASA and the Air Force. Weldon began working for Boeing beginning in 1960. During his time with the company, he helped design the innovative wing flaps on the 727 which enabled it to land on shorter runways. He worked from 1973 to 2006 oncomposite structures made and was Boeing's choice for advanced research on their use in future aircraft designs.[1] [2] Weldon also worked on the Space Shuttle and managed one of its highest loaded components. [2] Considering his extensive experience on these structural components of aircraft, Vince Weldon can be considered a technical expert on the subject.

Boeing 787[edit | edit source]

Background[edit | edit source]

The 787 "Dreamliner" has been the centerpiece of Boeing's work since the early 2000s. It was the first completely new aircraft that Boeing has released since debuting the 777 in 1995. Even before a single Dreamliner had been assembled, Boeing sold 642 of the aircraft worth roughly $100 Billion. The aircraft touts new structural technology, a more spacious and comfortable cabin, and improved fuel-efficiency. [3]

The inside of the 787 fuselage made mostly of composite materials

Development Problems[edit | edit source]

The Dreamliner has suffered from numerous setbacks in the course of its development. For various reasons, it's first flight was delayed multiple times. Boeing's airline customers filed lawsuits due to the delay. Boeing was also three years late in delivering its first Dreamliner. In 2010, a Dreamliner suffered an electrical fire during testing that grounded the entire fleet. Once Boeing actually received FAA clearance in 2011 and delivered Dreamliners to airlines, the problems did not stop. In it's short operational life, the Dreamliner has experienced multiple fuel leaks, battery problems that grounded the entire fleet, and numerous electrical system failures. [4] These problems have marred the Dreamliner's debut. Despite these problems, demand for the Dreamliner has persisted. Boeing has struggled to build the aircraft fast enough to respond to the demand of the airlines. [5] The Dreamliner, even with its development problems, will be widely used throughout the world in the coming decades. The safety and reliability of the aircraft is incredibly important for the airlines and passengers that will rely on it.


Use of Composites[edit | edit source]

One of the most significant innovations in the Dreamliner is its use of composites. It is the first commercial airliner to use mostly composites instead of Aluminum. [6] Over 50% of the aircraft body is composite material. Composites provide a number of advantages in aircraft structure. Composites have a very high stiffness to weight ratio and they are not susceptible to fatigue and corrosion like metals commonly used in air frames. However, developers are wary of weaknesses associated with composites. Since composites are made from multiple layers of material, they have a potential to de-laminate under specific types of stresses. Engineers have to take care to avoid placing the material under these stresses. Additionally, composites are difficult to join using traditional methods. [7] Vince Weldon brought up additional concerns about composites in aircraft, which he claims led to his eventual firing from Boeing in 2006.

Disagreement[edit | edit source]

Safety Claims[edit | edit source]

In 2005 Weldon was assigned to consult on the safety of the 787 due to his extensive background in composite materials. His research led him to contend that the 787 would perform poorly in a survivable crash landing due to the composite plastics shattering easily and burning with toxic fumes. He also claimed that the company was not adequately testing the crashworthiness because Boeing was dropping the fuselage sections from about 15 feet. Similar safety concerns were brought to Weldon’s attention when he received emails from different Boeing engineers in August 2005 and February 2006. Weldon addressed these safety claims to Boeing management and was subsequently fired in July 2006. The two unnamed Boeing engineers that sent Weldon emails were not fired and were still on staff as recent as September 2007.[8]

Weldon's Actions[edit | edit source]

In July 2007 Weldon sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) detailing many of the concerns with the 787 that were not being addressed by Boeing. In addition to the issues associated with the composite materials, Weldon claimed that Boeing’s compressed six-month test program and federal certification period was not sufficient to determine the overall safety of the airliner, and that Boeing was rushing the process to deliver in May. He also complained that the criticisms he expressed were ignored and covered up. [8]

Weldon filed a “whistle-blower complaint” with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) claiming that his firing was in “retaliation for raising concerns throughout the last two years of his employment about the crashworthiness of the 787.” Boeing responded to OSHA by claiming that he was “dismissed 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 the claim regarding the noose and said that the “meat hook” comment was misinterpreted and was not actually a threat.[9]

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

OSHA denied Weldon whistle-blower status because the 787 did not violate any FAA regulations and that proper crash testing had been performed. Mike Fergus, an FAA spokesperson, said that the 787 would not be certified and cleared for the air unless it met all of the FAA’s criteria. He emphasized that the 787 must meet the requirement that passengers would have at least as good of a chance of surviving a crash landing as compared to crashing in metal airliners. [9]

When Boeing was contacted regarding Weldon a spokeswoman, Lori Gunter, said that Weldon was a senior engineer but wasn’t specifically a materials expert, although he had almost 40 years of experience in composites. Gunter was frustrated at Weldon’s harsh comments against Boeing, specifically his claims that Boeing was taking shortcuts for profit. Gunter backed Boeing and the safety of their airliners and said “We fly on those airplanes. Our children fly on those airplanes.” [8] To date there have been a multitude of issues with the 787 airliner but none have been associated with the problems that Weldon brought to light. [4]

Comparison to Dan Applegate[edit | edit source]

Dan Applegate was an engineer working on the DC-10 project for McDonnell Douglas under the contractor Convair. On June 12th, 1972 American Airlines Flight 96, a DC-10 en route from Detroit to LaGuardia, lost its aft bulk-cargo compartment door in mid-flight. This caused decompression of the cabin and failure of the cabin floor which disconnected several control systems. The crew was able to land the plane safely using thrust differentials. This came to be known as the Windsor incident. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the Windsor incident was by caused “improper engagement of the latching mechanism for the aft bulk-cargo compartment door during the preparation of the airplane for flight.” The design of the door-latching mechanism was such that it could appear to be properly closed when it was not[10].

The Turkish Airlines DC-10 which crashed on March 3rd, 1974

Two weeks later, Dan Applegate wrote the Applegate Memorandum which was addressed to his superior, J.B. Hurt. It outlined the safety issues of the DC-10 that resulted in the Windsor incident. These included the safety of the improperly closed cargo door latching system and the susceptibility to failure of the cabin floor. It then argued that sufficient measures to ensure the safety of the aircraft had not been taken by either Douglas or Convair and that if action was not taken Convair could be legally and morally responsible for the loss of an aircraft and its passengers. The contents of the memo were reviewed by Hurt and subsequently dismissed in a meeting that concluded that ultimately Douglas was aware of the safety issues and that Convair could not afford to risk its contract with Douglas by approaching them with a costly safety concern. [10]

On March 3rd, 1974, Turkish Airlines Flight 981, another DC-10, crashed in the Ermonville forest outside of Paris killing all 346 passengers. The crash was caused by the same improper door latching, loss of aft cargo door, cabin depressurization and loss of cabin floor as seen in the Windsor incident two years prior. Among many other results, the crash caused criticism of Dan Applegate’s actions. Some argued, despite Applegate’s pointed memorandum, that he did not do enough to stop the inherently unsafe DC-10 from flying. Critics say he should have continued to pressure his superiors and “blow the whistle” on Convair and Douglas if necessary[10]. In essence, these critics claim that Applegate should have done what Weldon did about the Dreamliner. Yet Weldon was fired and has been denied legal protection as a whistleblower.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Applegate and Weldon have something to teach about professionalism. Both were faced with a scenario that, in their professional judgment, posed a serious threat to public welfare. Applegate’s contrition and Weldon’s defiance were diametrically opposed, yet both were met with harsh criticism. The professionalism of each individual was determined by consequences, not choices. Had Applegate worked for Boeing and Weldon worked for Convair, their choices would have likely been applauded.

The Dreamliner has yet to crash; the verdict on the crash-ability of the composite body is unknown. If Weldon was correct and the composite body proves to be fatal for passengers during a crash, then all of his work and sacrifice will have been for naught. A professional can do his utmost to exercise his professional judgment for the good of the public, yet the worst case scenario may still happen.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Rather, D. (2007). Plastic Planes. Retrieved from youtube.com
  2. a b Weldon, V. (2007, July 24). Response to invited comments on Docket No. NM368, Special Conditions No. 25-07-05-SC: Boeing Model 787-8 Airplane; Crashworthiness. Memorandum. Retrieved from {http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ABPub/2007/09/17/2003889769.pdf seattletimes.nwsource.com}
  3. Rigby, B. (2007, July 9). Boeing Set to Unveil new 787 Dreamlineer. from usatoday.com
  4. a b Harress, C. (2014, March 10). Boeing 787: A Complete Timeline Of The Dreamliner's Legacy Of Failure, After Cracks Discovered In Wings. Retrieved April 28, 2015, from http://www.ibtimes.com/boeing-787-complete-timeline-dreamliners-legacy-failure-after-cracks-discovered-wings-1560491.
  5. Reed, J. (2015, April 29) Boeing's 787 Dreamliner Has a Nice Problem - Demand Exceeds Supply. from http://www.thestreet.com/
  6. Wallace, J and James, A. (2007, July 8). Thousands Welcome the Long-Awaited Dreamliner. from http://www.seattlepi.com/
  7. Yancey, Robert. (2012, June 11). How Composites are Strengthening the Aviation Industry. from http://www.industryweek.com/
  8. a b c Gates, D. (2007, September 18). Fired engineer calls 787's plastic fuselage unsafe. Retrieved April 27, 2015, from http://www.seattletimes.com/business/boeing-aerospace/fired-engineer-calls-787s-plastic-fuselage-unsafe/.
  9. a b Haines, L. (2007, September 19). 787 unsafe, claims former Boeing engineer. Retrieved April 28, 2015, from http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/09/19/dreamliner_allegations/.
  10. a b c Fielder, J. H., & Birsch, D. (1992). The DC-10 case : a study in applied ethics, technology, and society. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.