The enduring controversy of TWA Flight 800

 - October 24, 2006, 8:07 AM

It is hard to believe that despite the passage of more than nine years since that hot July night, the discussion continues about TWA Flight 800, which crashed off the coast of Long Island in July 1996. While we expect that regulatory authorities would continue their activities based on their findings and recommendations, no one expected that so many people and organizations would devote their own time and resources to revisiting what is probably the most expensive aircraft accident investigation in U.S. (and maybe world) history.

Without both the financial resources and the time and talent of many subject experts, we probably would not have uncovered the safety concerns detailed in the investigation report. In the past eight weeks I have received calls from newspaper and magazine reporters who have had individuals provide them with another version of what happened to Flight 800.

Reporters have been asking me questions about the NTSB or NTSB-generated reports for a long time, so I don’t consider these questions unusual. What is unusual is the number of requests I have received about something that happened so long ago. Most of what I have been asked to comment on involves looking at TWA Flight 800 from only one or two perspectives. That approach simply does not work for this investigation.

The Investigation

The airplane’s flight data recorder is one common subject for inquiries, probably because printouts of this data are available to anyone. Another area some start with is he statements either from the 700-plus witnesses who are in the NTSB report or others that have been published in some article. A common theme is the theory that a missile brought down the 747 that night.

We have to remember that in complex investigations many sources of information must come together to create a complete picture of the events surrounding the accident. Such was the case with TWA Flight 800. And that is exactly what the NTSB did. In addition to conducting and analyzing more than 700 interviews, the Board’s staff also gathered and analyzed detailed information in at least the following areas: ATC, operations, meteorology, structures, powerplants, systems, flight data recorder, cockpit voice recorder, maintenance records, aircraft performance, materials, sequencing, reconstruction and medical, including forensic, fire and explosion.

Studying one or two of these areas would not have created a picture of the entire event. For example, some believed that there was not enough energy in an empty fuel tank to break an aircraft apart.

Not until we had invested a lot of time, effort and money in testing, including building and destroying scale-model fuel tanks, did we understand not only how much energy really remained in the fuel tank but also how that energy destroyed the structural integrity of this aircraft.

I would like to make another point about physical evidence. In many accidents, the metal tells a compelling story, one that doesn’t change easily. Metal keeps its shape unless a strong enough force alters whatever shape it was formed into. A materials lab can tell you a lot about that force and the direction from which it was applied. Because this accident was initially considered a crime, much of the metal recovered was examined by specialists from the materials lab, and their work helped explain xactly how the aircraft came apart in flight.

We used this information, along with other information, to develop the sequencing group report. Understanding how the aircraft came apart helped us focus our efforts toward finding a cause. We must not forget that we were working under some self-imposed pressure as we were constantly aware that whatever happened to TWA Flight 800 might happen again before we understood what we were working on.

My point in all of this is that sometimes information must be gathered from many different sources before you can see clearly an event that has occurred, and the process often requires a steady hand and a sharp eye if investigators are to grasp the event in its entirety.