I remember well that night 17 years ago when TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed off the coast of Long Island, killing all aboard. I was settling down with some friends at my brother’s Manhattan apartment to watch a game between the Red Sox and their arch-rival Yankees when the game broadcast was interrupted by news that an airliner had crashed soon after takeoff from JFK International.
Given the proximity of the disaster, the New York-based channel went to live coverage, pre-empting the remainder of the game. A week later, I found myself visiting my girlfriend (now wife) out on Long Island. At the time, she lived near the beach from which you could see the U.S. Navy recovery vessels in the distance, working to raise the wreckage of the Boeing 747. Out of curiosity, we went there, and as we walked along the beach, we could see small chunks of some honeycombed insulation material that had washed up along the tide line. I then noticed a piece of green plastic sticking up out of the sand. I picked up what turned out to be a charred toothbrush, its bristles melted together, reeking of jet fuel. With a shudder, I realized it must have belonged to one of the people on board the doomed flight. Not wishing to keep such a macabre souvenir, I turned it in to the nearest lifeguard, who placed it into a bag holding other debris already collected. Stuff like that had been washing up for days, he told me, adding that investigators came by regularly to claim it.
As the investigation into the crash proceeded, the conspiracy theories started, as they always do, including one perpetuated by former White House press secretary and ABC News correspondent, the late Pierre Salinger: that the Boeing 747 was accidentally shot down by “friendly fire.” Some even claimed to have seen a light trail streaking upwards, which they assumed to be a missile.
The investigation lasted several years and eventually ruled out any such hypothesis in favor of an explosion in the empty center fuel tank.
Now, as we approach the 17th anniversary of the disaster that claimed the lives of 230 people, comes word of a petition from a former NTSB investigator to reopen the investigation, along with the debut of a documentary featuring some (now retired) investigators who say the investigation was flawed or an outright cover-up.
This past Tuesday, the NTSB held a background briefing at its training center in Ashburn, Va., refreshing the public on its original findings, and those who attended could view the reconstructed wreckage, which now resides there permanently. The agency, as required, is still considering the petition into reopening the inquest.
John Goglia, a member of the Board when it conducted the investigation into the accident and current AIN contributor, has seen the film and categorically repudiates its allegations. “There is no way that I believe that it was possible to cover up an accident of this magnitude involving this many people,” he told me. “In the United States, we cannot keep nuclear secrets, and we saw what just happened with the NSA. There’s no way that for 17 years you could keep someone quiet given all the burden that one would carry with 230 lives.” Goglia said that that “someone” would include thousands of people from government, academia and industry who were involved during the course of the four-year investigation.
One of them, Robert Kauffman, is a distinguished research chemist at the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI). He’s a specialist in fuel chemistry and the man who determined what most likely (the NTSB doesn’t deal in 100-percent absolutes; its final accident reports refer to “probable cause”) brought the aircraft down. I had spoken to him the past on other topics, but I called him last week to get his opinion on whether the investigation should be reopened.
Several years after the crash, Kauffman was recruited by the team investigating the causes of the accident, which had by then focused its suspicions on the center wing fuel tank. The initial speculation was a simple high-voltage spark, but that wouldn’t last long enough to ignite the fuel, Kauffman said. “What we started looking at then was what was available on the airplane that could cause fuel ignition,” he told me. “About that same time there were a lot of reports on these conductive residues forming on the fuel quantity indicating systems (FQIS).”
The FAA conducted a worldwide fuel sample survey and Kauffman was sent approximately 50 jet fuel samples to analyze. He found that the quantity of sulfur in the fuels varied greatly, but found a clue when he looked at the lowest sulfur fuels. “If we took the low-sulfur fuel, we took water, we took silver-plated nuts that were on airplanes at the time and added electricity that was on the FQIS, we could make the same conductive residues.” Silver plating was used on some internal fuel tank fittings to protect them from corrosion brought on by high sulfur content. Conversely, the low sulfur fuels caused the silver coating to migrate to other surfaces in a process similar to electroplating.
The next clue Kauffman found was frayed wires from the fuel valve shutoff system, which were bundled with the FQIS wiring. The higher current from the fuel valve shutoff system traveled along the FQIS wire and caused the residues to heat. Kauffman was able to demonstrate what was determined to be the cause of the fatal explosion using a nine-volt battery attached to a wire with the silver residue. When a drop of fuel was added, it burst into flame. “Everything was on that airplane that was needed for the mechanism,” he noted. “The problem was they had silver-plated nuts, and they were silver plated to resist the attack from sulfur from the fuel. [Then the refineries] started lowering the sulfur in the fuel, and the silver, instead of being there to protect the nut against corrosion, actually became a catalyst for ignition.”
Supporting those findings were similar explosions in the center fuel tanks of two other aircraft: a 1990 explosion that destroyed a Philippines Airlines 737 on the ground in Manila, and a Thai Airways 737 in 2001 at Bangkok International Airport. All three accidents took place on hot summer days during which each aircraft’s air conditioner packs (located near the center fuel tanks) provided an additional source of heat, which raised the level of fuel vapors in the tanks. According to Kauffman, when the fuel temperature reaches 140 to 160 degrees F (it varies from fuel to fuel), the air/fuel vapor becomes ignitable.
Kauffman credits the TWA accident and the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111 (a McDonnell Douglas MD-11 that went down off Nova Scotia after arcing from frayed wires caused a fire in the cockpit) for the establishment of the FAA’s Aging Aircraft Initiative. “If you think about the [improvement in safety] since those accidents, a lot of it had to do with what was learned from them.”
For Kauffman and Goglia, there is no doubt in their minds what brought TWA 800 down, but for the conspiracy theorists out there, there is always a more sinister explanation for everything lurking just behind the shadows, and perhaps a buck or two to be made off that notion for the producers of the documentary.
“I don’t believe that what they disclose meets the minimum threshold for a reopening of the investigation,” said Goglia. “This is a unique accident in as much as if you take certain parts of the report and exclude the others, you could move the probable cause around to several different possibilities, but when you take the totality of all the work that was done and all the physical evidence, it really does lead you right into the center fuel tank exploding.”