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Wed, Sep 19, 2007

Fired Boeing Engineer Goes Public With 787 Safety Concerns

Ex-Employee Has Checkered Past... And, He Says, Emails From Other Concerned Workers

The Dreamliner could be a safety nightmare. So says a former engineer fired last year from Boeing... who claims the upcoming composite-bodied airliner's structure could easily shatter and burn, potentially leading to passenger fatalities in an accident that would be survivable in an aluminum-bodied plane.

Vince Weldon claims the composite-bodied plane could splinter in an accident, resulting in shards that could be inhaled by passengers... and in the event of a fire, toxic fumes could enter into the passenger cabin. He also says the 787's composite fuselage is not sufficiently shielded against lightning strikes.

Weldon, 46, made his case on Dan Rather's HDNet television show Tuesday night, reports the Seattle Times. The engineer was fired from Boeing last year, a move he later alleged was "retaliation for raising concerns throughout the last two years of his employment about the crashworthiness of the 787." Weldon filed a whistle-blower complaint with the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over his firing.

A summary of OSHA's findings, however, paints a less-than-flattering portrait of the man. Boeing told investigators Weldon was fired for threatening an African-American supervisor, saying he wanted to hang the man "on a meat hook" and that he "wouldn't mind" seeing a noose around his neck.

Weldon denied Boeing's claim he made reference to a noose, and said the "meat hook" reference wasn't meant as a threat. OSHA dismissed his claim to whistle-blower status, on the basis the 787's design doesn't violate FAA regulations.

In making his case that the 787 is unsafe -- and that he isn't simply a disgruntled ex-employee -- Weldon backs up his claims with emails from other engineers at Boeing -- dated August 2005 and February 2006 -- expressing concerns over crashworthiness testing of the airliner.

He recently sent a letter to the FAA, in which he claims his criticisms were ignored and "well covered-up."

Boeing denies Weldon's claims, saying the questions he raised were addressed, and approved by the company's technical advisors.

Weldon says he has worked with composites since 1973. He worked at Boeing's Kent, WA facility, where he states he led the structural design effort of a complex space shuttle component, and supervised a number of advanced design groups, according to the Times.

Boeing confirmed he was a senior engineer at the company, but spokeswoman Lori Gunter asserted Weldon was not specifically an expert on composites. She also bristled at the man's allegations Boeing has neglected safety with the 787.

"We wouldn't create a product that isn't safe for the flying public," Gunter said. "We fly on those airplanes. Our children fly on those airplanes."

As ANN reported, Boeing recently touted a section of the 787's composite-barrel fuselage passed an important safety drop-test. The exact results of the test were not released by the planemaker, however, citing proprietary concerns... and Weldon asserts that test failed to replicate a likely crash scenario, anyway.

Boeing hopes to certify the 787 in record time... with approximately six months separating the aircraft's recently-delayed first flight, to its projected entry into service in May 2008. The planemaker says an accelerated testing schedule, using six airplanes, will make that possible.

Weldon declined to speak with the Times through an intermediary.

Former CBS anchor Rather -- who left that network in 2006, following allegations of forged documents being presented as fact in a report on President George W. Bush's service in the National Guard -- said Weldon seemed reluctant to speak out publicly.

"We approached Weldon. In the beginning, it was not at all certain he would cooperate," Rather told the Times, adding "there are others who are still within the company who are concerned ... that Boeing could be destroyed by taking the 787 to market too soon and brushing aside these safety concerns too cavalierly."

FMI: www.boeing.com, www.hd.net

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