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TWA Flight 800

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TWA Flight 800

Recovered parts of TWA 800's fuselage

Date   July 17, 1996
Type   mid-air explosion
Site   Atlantic Ocean near Long Island
Fatalities   230
Injuries   0
Aircraft type   Boeing 747-131
Operator   Trans World Airlines
Tail number   N93119
Passengers   212
Crew   18
Survivors   0

TWA Flight 800 (TW800, TWA800) was a TWA passenger flight that disintegrated while flying from John F. Kennedy International Airport (New York) to Charles de Gaulle International Airport (Paris) in July of 1996, killing all 230 aboard. The incident has been the most expensive, intensive, and longest crash investigation in civil aviation history. Even after the NTSB's official cause was released, the reason for the explosion is still widely debated to this day.

On July 17, 1996, at around 8:31 p.m. the plane, a Boeing 747-131 registered as N93119 and designated by TWA as ship number 17119, exploded in mid-air off Long Island and plunged into the ocean, at 40°39′1″N, 072°38′0″W, approximately 20 miles southwest of East Hampton, New York, killing all 230 people on board. Passengers included French guitarist Marcel Dadi; composer David Hogan; Jed Johnson, a former member of Andy Warhol's filmmaking team; the wife and niece of jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter; the sister of comic creator Geoff Johns, who later created the character Stargirl based on her; Portland, Oregon homicide detective Susan Hill; and Dan Gabor, a University of Arkansas all-American track athlete. Other passengers included 16 members of the French club at Montoursville High School in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, and their five chaperones.

The aircraft was flying more than eight miles off the coast of East Moriches, New York (on Long Island) when the plane's center wing fuel tank exploded. The aircraft developed cracks around the nose as a consequence of the explosion, and the front part of the aircraft broke off (including the cockpit and first class section). The left wing ruptured, and the leaking fuel from the left wing tank ignited in the air, triggering a second explosion. Without the weight of the nose, the aft (back) section of the plane began to ascend, leading many eyewitness who saw the flaming aft section flying upwards to think they had seen a missile and/or contrail. The rest of the plane continued to fly for another 30 seconds until it lost momentum and went into a dive. Both pieces of TWA 800 splashed down into the Atlantic Ocean, and some debris burned on the surface of the ocean.

While the above details are generally not in question, the cause of the explosion is a matter of debate. A four-year investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the only official investigation to date, concluded that fumes inside the center wing tank ignited, causing the explosion. The NTSB concluded that the spark was created by faulty wire insulation and an electrical arc. The theory was solidified upon investigating the poor condition of wiring on other Boeing 747 aircraft of the approximate age. N93119 was an early "100" series (1971) with three upper deck windows, 93,303 hours on the airframe, and 16,869 flight cycles (one takeoff and landing is a flight cycle). Boeing recommends a life span of 20 years, 60,000 hours and 20,000 flight cycles for a 747.

The NTSB contends that the explosion could have been prevented by use of a system to smother flammable vapors inside fuel tanks, rather than the industry standards of the time that focused on eliminating ignition sources that could enter them from the outside. However, this explanation is not universally accepted, and several alternate theories to TWA 800's demise exist.

Following the crash, TWA continued to operate flights between New York and Paris under the flight number 924 (return flight number was 925) until its merger with American Airlines in 2001. It retired the number 800 (and return flight number 803) about three weeks after the disaster.


[edit] Official explanation

After what has been billed as the longest and most expensive accident investigation in American aviation history, the NTSB investigation's conclusions were adopted on August 23, 2000, just over four years after the disaster.

The NTSB concluded that the "probable cause" of the explosion (the language is always guarded) was a spark within the center fuel tank, which caused an explosion in flight.

The aircraft sat on the runway at JFK with two of three air conditioning packs (units) running for two and a half hours (The outside air temprature was 85-90 degrees F). The air conditionings packs on a 747 are beneath the center fuel tank. This caused the center fuel tank to heat up to 130-145 degrees F, and the small amount of remaining fuel within the tank, which is usually used only on long 747 flights, to vaporize. The highly flammable fuel/air mixture of the center wing fuel tank probably ignited due to electrical fault, causing the plane to explode in flight. Paradoxically, a small amount of fuel in a tank is more dangerous than a large amount, since fuel has a higher specific heat capacity, and is slower to heat up than an air mixture.

Investigators considered the possibility of a criminal or terrorist act during the four-year investigation. Six months after the disaster on January 16, 1997, the NTSB's chairman, Jim Hall, stated, "All three theories - a bomb, a missile or mechanical failure - remain."[1] This is typical of standard scientific procedure, which openly considers all possibilities, until each one can be refuted and a probable cause can be determined, and should be interpreted as such. The FBI's earliest investigations and interviews, later used by the NTSB, were performed under the assumption that the plane was hit by a missile, a fact noted in the NTSB's final report. However, all agencies involved--the NTSB, FBI and Coast Guard agreed that there was no foul play involved after examining all the plane's recovered wreckage.

CNN reported that early in the course of the investigation, terrorists linked to Iran were the prime suspects. Leon Panetta, then chief of staff at the White House, told CNN that had this been the case, President Bill Clinton would have likely asked Congress to declare war on Iran.

Speculation at the time and in the years since has been fueled in part by early descriptions, visuals, radar, and eyewitness accounts of this jet disaster, including a sudden explosion and trails of fire in the sky; particularly, trails of fire moving in an upward direction. Investigators said that witnesses who reported seeing a missile actually saw Flight 800 climbing sharply and trailing flames after it exploded. The NTSB produced simulations of the proposed climb[2], but disagreement exists as to whether radar returns from the doomed flight show the necessary ground-speed reduction to match these simulations.[3] Nearly all of the 670 witnesses, interviewed by FBI, observed the ending of the crash sequence, including the burning fall of the jetliner into the Atlantic.

Two unusual pauses in the cockpit voice recorder's tape, each about two microseconds long, and just before the voice recorder cuts off, suggest a short circuit in the electrical system of TWA 800, and provides a framework by which a short circuit could have existed to spark and ignite the center fuel tank of the aircraft.

[edit] Alternative Theories

[edit] Terrorist bomb

One common alternative theory is that the plane was brought down by a bomb similar to the one that brought down Pan Am Flight 103. The TWA 800 disaster occurred 2 days before the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, and this connection was not lost on media pundits, taking into account eyewitness accounts of the nature of an explosion. The FBI reported the discovery of plastic explosive residue within the debris of the plane, on August 27, over a month after the crash. A few weeks later, this residue was explained as the product of a bomb detection exercise performed in the plane a few weeks before the crash. This explanation is often dismissed by individuals who believe a terrorist bomb was involved in the destruction of TWA 800.

In his book Cover Up: What the Government Is Still Hiding About the War on Terror, journalist Peter Lance alleges that TWA 800 was blown up by a bomb intended to disrupt the trial of terrorist Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and planner of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Lance claims that the explosion is consistent with Yousef's bomb design intended to blow up the center fuel tank of a Boeing 747 that had previously been used on Flight 434, although it had been improperly placed and failed to ignite the fuel tank. Lance claims that this link was never made because it relied heavily on prison informant Greg Scarpa Jr., the son of a leader of the Colombo crime family, whose credibility was undermined by people in the FBI seeking to protect many convictions of mobsters which could be overturned if Scarpa was a credible witness in a possible internal investigation into whether Special Agent Lindley DeVecchio had been leaking FBI information that allowed Scarpa's father to conduct a bloody mob war.

[edit] Missile strike (unknown/terrorist origin)

Further information: The Donaldson Report

Cmdr. William S. Donaldson, a retired Naval officer, and others, conducted an independent investigation entitled "Interim Report on the Crash of TWA Flight 800 and the Actions of the NTSB and the FBI", released on July 17, 1998, two years after the explosion, and two years before the NTSB's conclusions were released.

A private researcher, Michael Hull, working with Cmdr. Donaldson, reached the key conclusion that the center wing tank exploded at approximately 8,000 feet, approximately 24 seconds after the aircraft was decapitated in a missile attack at just over 13,000 feet (a conclusion they assert radar evidence supports). A possible culprit was proposed as Islamic Jihad, using a shoulder mounted missile.

Major Fred Meyer has made the assertion that he saw TWA 800 shot down while piloting one of the first helicopters to arrive at the TWA 800 crash site, based on the distribution and appearance of wreckage [4].

Evidence from two eyewitnesses (Goss and Dougherty, interviewed by the Donaldson researchers [5]) describes how one of the missiles made a sharp turn. These accounts were used by the researchers to triangulate the launch points of two missiles. Hull and Donaldson agree that this view of where the center wing tank exploded is supported by several pilots who overflew the smoke cloud and estimated its height with their altimeters. They assert that testimony to the NTSB showed that the black smoke from the center wing tank fuel explosion was not at 13,000 feet, where the NTSB and CIA say it should have been, but was at a significantly lower altitude.

Michael Hull further asserts that the downing of TWA 800 was a success in a chain of state-sponsored terrorist attempts to shoot down aircraft in the greater Long Island area, quoting a March 1997 incident, and others, to justify this conclusion.

Osama bin Laden said he may use anti-aircraft missiles to attack US passenger planes in an interview with ABC's John Miller in 1998. [6]

One flaw with the missile theory is that Stinger missiles, as well as other Man Portable Air Defense (MANPAD) weapons, are guided by infa-red, homing in on the heat from engines. In contrast, radar-guided missiles are rarely used by terrorists due to the price, availability, size, and detectability of such weapons. Therefore, though it would be expected that a terrorist missile attack would involve a MANPAD, the explosion was on the bottom of the plane; if it were a MANPAD launch, then a missile would probably not have hit the bottom of the plane but somewhere in trailing proximity to the engines (the tail section).

[edit] Missile strike (friendly fire)

One theory has the US Navy conducting tests of submarine-to-air missiles, accidentally hitting Flight 800, and then covering up the fatal error. After initial denials, the U.S. Navy later admitted that USS Wyoming (SSBN-742), listed as being armed with 24 Trident II D-5 Ballistic Missiles, commissioned only days before, was conducting sea trials in the area, and that USS Trepang (SSN-674) and USS Albuquerque (SSN-706) were conducting unspecified operations in the area. The Wyoming is indicated to be carrying Trident missiles, but these are ICBMs (strategic nuclear missiles), not SAMs (anti-aircraft missiles). Possibly one or more could have been carrying shoulder-fired missiles; however, all three were more than 50 miles (80 km) away from the crash site [citation needed], far outside the range of any MANPAD. Granting these facts, alternate theories have suggested that the type of missile used to strike the plane may be classified secret.

Another possible alternate theory involving the US Navy is that a missile was fired from the USS Normandy (CG-60), operating 185 nautical miles (340 km) south of the TWA 800 crash site. This is well outside of the range of currently deployed Standard missiles carried by US ships, almost double the range of the current SM-2 Block IIIB versions, and just within the future Block IV ER versions. Even if this were a test of a Block IV version, although there is no evidence for this, at the extreme range in question the engine would have long burned out and the warhead would be gliding. This contradicts the main claim that a missile was involved, which is a number of eyewitness accounts claiming to have seen a missile trail almost vertical under the explosion site. Furthermore, inventories of USS Normandy's missile complement by the US Navy, immediately following the crash of TWA 800, showed no missiles missing from the inventory. The only US military ship within any kind of missile range was the Coast Guard patrol boat USCGC Adak, which was apparently without surface to air capability.

Regardless of the possibility of any number of missiles and missile launch platforms being in the vicinity of TWA 800 at the time of the accident, no evidence of a missile impact exists within the recovered wreckage according to a study conducted by the Department of Defense's Office of Special Technology.

Nevertheless, evidence such as the following affidavit, dated January 2, 2003, is being listed as one of the articles of evidence in recent FOIA suits pressed by Captain Ray Lahr against the National Transportation Safety Board: [7] in the assertion that TWA 800 was downed by a missile. The affidavit filed in Lahr's suit is by a retired United Airlines pilot, Captain Richard Russell, [8] who viewed radar tapes and took part in phone conversations which convinced him that Flight 800 was a victim of friendly fire, and subsequently wrote an affidavit to this effect.

Pierre Salinger, a former White House press secretary to President John F. Kennedy, US Senator, and ABC News journalist, prominently and repeatedly claimed he had proof that the flight was downed by a missile from a U.S. Navy ship. The document on which his "proof" was based was given to him by someone in French Intelligence [9]. It was later found not to be a government document but instead an email written by retired United Airlines pilot Richard Russell [10] that had been distributed over Usenet weeks before.

In November of 2006, a federal judge ruled to allow former pilot Ray Lahr access to most of the relevant documents to the case of Flight 800 which he had been seeking for the past 9 years. The judge stating in the ruling, "taken together this evidence is sufficient to permit plaintiff to proceed based on his claim that the government acted improperly in its investigation of Flight 800 or at least performed in a grossly negligent fashion." Lahr stated in an interview, "I believe that I could show that the zoom climb never happened. If the zoom climb never happened then they've got to find out what the eyewitnesses saw and the only logical conclusion there is is that they saw a missile."[11]

[edit] Summary

A number of alternative theories surrounding TWA 800 rely on the over 250 eyewitness accounts collected by the FBI. While very few of the witnesses were within five miles (8 km) of TWA 800 at the time of the accident, according to a witness map provided by the NTSB, the majority of the witnesses were within 15 miles, a distance not outside the the range of visual acuity for humans, particularly for a bright moving object in the dark. For example, humans view far more faint objects at far larger distances with relative ease, such as shooting stars.

As mentioned above, investigators initially believed that TWA 800 was a terrorist act. Large stockpiles of FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles were missing from American military arsenals around the globe. Also, at the time of the explosion, Yousef was on trial for a plot to bomb American jets.

However, CNN reported as the investigation wore on, they discounted the theories that a bomb or missile caused the explosion. They found no signs of damage from a Pan Am 103-type bomb, and there were no traces of explosive imprints or traces of bomb material. The sound pattern of the first explosion is different from that of Pan Am 103. All four engines were recovered, with no traces of the kind of damage that would result from a heat-seeking missile.

For its special on the crash, CNN interviewed two pilots who saw the explosion while flying passenger jets overhead that night. The pilots stated that from their previous experience as military pilots, there was no sign of a missile launch anywhere near the 747. One of them, Paul Whelan, who was flying a Boeing 737 that night, said that he saw no vapor trail that could have come from a missile.

During the investigation process, the NTSB and FBI frequently were at odds with one another over the cause, and this stimulated missile or other criminally-motivated theories. The FBI did not close its official TWA 800 investigation for years after the crash, with the implication that evidence might emerge justifying criminal suspicion.

[edit] A preventable crash?

The NTSB's final report was highly critical of the FAA and aviation industry's emphasis on eliminating ignition sources from the outside, while ignoring the flammable vapors inside the fuel tanks.

Cleve Kimmel, an aerospace engineer, spent nearly 30 years developing an inerting system to prevent fuel tank explosions on aircraft. Kimmel's system pumps nitrogen into fuel tanks to displace oxygen. The effect is to either completely smother the oxygen or reduce it to a level where it can't ignite, eliminating any chance of an explosion inside the tank. Kimmel's system had been used on military planes for years, but the FAA balked at requiring it for passenger aircraft after the airlines complained it was impractical. Indeed, early nitrogen systems weighed about 2,000 pounds. However, the FAA refused to even consider inerting systems until after TWA 800.

In a proposed rule issued in November 2005, almost a decade after the crash, the FAA wrote that for the previous forty years, it had focused on improving fuel tank safety by reducing possible sources of ignition, and had spent no effort on reducing the flammability of fuel vapor if ignition were to occur. The FAA decided to change this tactic, and finally proposed a rule that would require operators of most large aircraft to install an inerting system in the center fuel tank. The proposed system, based on Kimmel's system, is very light, weighing only 300 pounds. The FAA stated that, including the TWA 800 crash, there had been four fuel tank explosions in airliners over the previous 15 years (two others having occurred on the ground, and one having been caused by an in-flight terrorist bomb which had not otherwise structurally compromised the aircraft (Avianca Flight 203), and that based on this statistic, it could be expected that there would be 9 center fuel tank explosions over the next 50 years. Inerting systems, the FAA wrote, could be expected to prevent 8 of these 9 probable explosions.

[edit] Trivia

The remains of TWA Flight 800, July 17, 1996
The remains of TWA Flight 800, July 17, 1996
  • An illustrated version of the incident is featured several times in Michel Gondry's 2006 fantasy film The Science of Sleep as part of main character Stéphane's "disasterology" paintings. In another part of the film, Stéphane dreams a paper model of the flight crashing into the Moon, causing it to explode.
  • Author Nelson DeMille's 2004 novel Night Fall is about an investigation into the alternative crash theories of TWA 800. A couple conducting an illicit affair on the beach inadvertently capture the disaster on video.
  • The incident was used as the basis for the 2000 horror movie Final Destination (see Flight 180) and inspired one of the stories in a comic book entitled Serina: Blade of the Pharaoh.
  • Comic book author Geoff Johns' sister Courtney died on Flight 800; he created the character Stargirl in her honor.
  • The character Chester in Neal Stephenson's 1999 novel Cryptonomicon, who has made a fortune working for a company that resembles Microsoft, builds a home that is a museum of dead technology. One of the exhibits is the complete remains of Flight 800's wreckage, reassembled and hung from the ceiling.
  • Scientists at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, were assigned to inspect TWA 800's fuel pumps as part of the investigation.
  • American rapper Immortal Technique makes allusions to the navy missile theory in his song Leaving The Past from the album Revolutionary Vol. 2 ("Bring the truth to your face with the style I run with, like the Navy missile that shot down flight 800").
  • A memorial to Flight 800 is located on Fire Island, New York.
  • This was the first breaking news story when MSNBC began broadcasting.
  • One passenger, language professor Lois Van Epps, taught actor Joe Mantegna in high school.
  • CNN aired a two-hour special on the crash, No Survivors: Why TWA 800 Could Happen Again, on July 15, 2006, nearly ten years to the date of the crash.
  • Local News 12 Long Island anchor Scott Feldman had originally reported on a early broadcast that Flight 800 had collided with a small plane.
  • Italian soccer player Christian Panucci was summoned for the Italian national team to play at the Olympic Games' soccer tournament in Atlanta, Georgia. A serious injury suffered before the beginning of the competition led him to plan to come back in advance to Italy. He was scheduled to leave USA on the TWA 800 flight, but a last minute problem forced him to postpone the departure, thus saving his life.
  • This incident was also featured in the show Seconds From Disaster.
  • In the middle of the film *Nine to Five, Dolly Parton and her colleagues send a nosy manager to the Aspen Language Center in Colorado to learn French. The TWA 800 plane N93119 was the plane shown in the film.
  • The mother of National Football League player Eddie George, the previous year's Heisman Trophy winner and a rookie-to-be with the Houston Oilers, was supposed to have been a flight attendant aboard this plane. However, Eddie's agent persuaded her to change her schedule so she could be in San Antonio on July 19 to attend Eddie's signing of his first NFL contract. [12]

[edit] Bibliography

As the spokesman and former supervisor of Inflight Services for TWA, I can attest that Eddie George's mother was never scheduled to work this flight. We did a complete check of her scheduling history and could never verify her claim.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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