Even as I was grumbling about the seat pitch on the Japan Airlines Dreamliner where I was otherwise enjoyably ensconced in row 48 for 13 hours on Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board was poised to ask the Federal Aviation Administration to order emergency inspections of all the General Electric GEnx-1B and -2B engines powering the Dreamliner and the newest Queen of the Sky, the Boeing 747-800.
The board believes there is an urgent safety need, after GEnx engines on two Boeing 787's showed fractures "in the fan mid shaft" this summer. Investigators were studying these two low time -- make that no time -- engine issues when a practically brand new AirBridge Cargo Boeing 747-800 cargo liner experienced an inflight shutdown of a GEnx engine during the takeoff roll from Shanghai Pudong International on September 11. The AirBridge engine had accumulated 1,200 hours and 240 cycles.
Damage to the low pressure turbine included broken fan blades and was similar to the damage seen on the first Dreamliner engine failure during a test flight in July at the Boeing assembly plant in Charleston.
So let's count shall we?
- July on the runway at Charleston
- August during a post-production test and ground run in Seattle
- September in Shanghai.
That's three months, three failures on the newest General Electric turbofan engine, an engine I'll add is ETOPS certified.
No manufacturer wants to be where General Electric is today with a mystery problem on a product it has invested heavily in and one it bills as the next generation. That's not hyperbole. The GEnx is the first with carbon fiber fan blades and fan case and performs with 15 percent reduction in fuel burn. It is also cleaner and quieter.
But right now its not the revolutionary pluses of the engine powering Boeing's latest airplanes that's got the safety board concerned. Like Rolls Royce's Trent 900 engines on the also-revolutionary Airbus A380, General Electric engines are a critical player in the 21st-century transition in aviation.
Someone once reminded me when writing about airplanes not to forget the engines; they often get lost amid the glitzy stories about new airframes. The plane fronts the band, sure, because that's what passengers see and experience and, well, the airplane is a lot better looking.
When all is said and done, however, its the geeky drummer at the rear of the stage who sets the tempo, the unappreciated but critical participant in every performance. In this analogy General Electric is drummer. Like Rolls Royce it needs to tune up its instrument. The whole darn show depends on it.