TWA 800 remembered 20 years later

twa 800
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The Impact of TWA 800

The below two articles review the impact of TWA 800 on the people who were personally touched by that tragedy and the value of that fuselage for aircraft accident investigators’ training.

Few aviation professionals over 40 have forgotten July 17, 1996 and its impact. On that day:

  • President Clinton occupied the White House

The US was in the midst of a Presidential Campaign and more relevantly, aviation was still reeling from the horrible ValuJet crash of May11.

A recitation of the important facts should serve to establish some perspective some 20 years later.

Status: Final
Date: Wednesday 17 July 1996
Time: 20:31
Type: Boeing 747-131
twa 800
Operator: Trans World Airlines – TWA
Registration: N93119
C/n / msn: 20083/153
First flight: 1971-08-18 (24 years 11 months)
Total airframe hrs: 93303
Cycles: 16869
Engines: Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7AH
Crew: Fatalities: 18 / Occupants: 18
Passengers: Fatalities: 212 / Occupants: 212
Total: Fatalities: 230 / Occupants: 230
Airplane damage: Destroyed
Airplane fate: Written off (damaged beyond repair)
Location: 13 km (8.1 mls) S off East Moriches, NY (   United States of America)
Phase: En route (ENR)
Nature: International Scheduled Passenger
Departure airport: New York-John F. Kennedy International Airport, NY (JFK/KJFK), United States of America
Destination airport: Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG/LFPG), France
Flight number: TW800

TWA took off from JFK bound twa 800for Charles De Gaulle and pushed back from Gate 17 at 8:02pm.  After climbing, the B-747 disappeared from the FAA’s radar about 8:31pm and seconds thereafter another plane seeing an explosion in the sky.

The NTSB immediately launched a Go Team led by the on call Member Bob Francis. Initial reports from eye witnesses contradictorily claimed that the plane was brought down either (i) by a terrorist bomb on board or (ii) by a surface-to-air guided missile. The intense media coverage focused on those sensational “causes” resulting in tremendous public interest and in the NTSB devoting tremendous resources to assess these two possible reasons for the tragedy.


twa 800

The President, in an effort to calm the nation, attended one of the NTSB press conferences.

The NTSB’s normally methodical, engtwa 800eering investigative techniques were disrupted by the 24 hour news cycle. Then Attorney General’s declared that this investigation was linked to a criminal act, and therefore the FBI would take the lead of the complex inquiry.

Criminal techniques limit access to the crime scene and preserve “evidence” for a future trial. With the potential for criminal liability (“false statements” in the course of an FBI case may lead to felony charges), the witnesses tend to be more guarded in their interviews. The lines of inquiry which the FBI investigators will pursue and which the NTSB experts would prefer are not always congruent. There was an unusual flurry of speculation about the two high profile theories of why the plane fell into the Long Island sound after the explosion.

twa 800

Recovering the bodies, personal effects and structural remnants were difficult because the waters were deep and occasionally rough. Search and recovery operations required the assistance of federal, state, and local governmental assets plus government contractors. The coordination was even more demanding than the 4 basic categories of organization would suggest; each level of resources, for example the federal, encompassed multiple commands (i.e. Navy, Coast Guard, etc.).

High technology equipment had to be brought into the search—remotely-operated under water vehiclesside-scan sonar, and laser line-scanning equipment. Divers were used to retrieve bodies and parts of the wreck. Some of the detritus was embedded in the sound’s mud and had to be scooped by scallop trawlers. Through this incredible effort, over 95% of the B-747 wreckage was eventually recovered.

twa 800

Everything recovered was shipped and trucked to a hangar in Calverton, New York. There the reconstruction experts organized everything brought in and eventually reassembled into a the damaged replica of the TWA plane.

twa 800

[note the FBI and local law enforcement presence]

Eventually, the NTSB was able to take full control of the examination and its work focused on three areas of assessment:

  • Structural failure and decompression
  • Live missile or bomb detonation
  • Fuel/air explosion in the center wing fuel tank

Massive amounts of NTSB staff and external experts were brought to bear to resolve the questions of how this tragedy occurred and of what might be done to prevent the reoccurrence of this crash.

After a tense and emotional hearing in Baltimore, the NTSB determined that TWA 800’s probable causes were (National Transportation Safety Board (2000) “Aircraft Accident Report: In-flight Breakup Over the Atlantic Ocean Trans World Airlines Flight 800” (PDF)):

“[An] explosion of the center wing fuel tank (CWT), resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the tank. The source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but, of the sources evaluated by the investigation, the most likely was a short circuit outside of the CWT that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system.”

The Board added these important recommendations:

  • “The design and certification concept that fuel tank explosions could be prevented solely by precluding all ignition sources.
  • The certification of the Boeing 747 with heat sources located beneath the CWT with no means to reduce the heat transferred into the CWT or to render the fuel tank vapor non-combustible.”

twa 800

The FAA reacted to the NTSB decision; it required the rewiring of the CWTs, pumping of inert gas into the fuel tanks and other remedial actions. Actually, Secretary Peña made the announcement.

The NTSB moved the Reconstructed TWA plane back to Virginia where it is used to train future investigators.

twa 800

What distinguishes TWA 600 from many other accident investigations was the longevity of conspiracy theories after the final determination of probable cause. In spite of exceedingly credible and impressive scientific, engineering and expert opinions for other disciplines, the internet continues to be the home for contrary views.

A horrendous tragedy has inspired an inordinate amount of attention. TWA 800 will remain in the consciousness of all aviation safety professionals for a long, long time.


FN—conspiracy theorists continue to offer new evidence.

ARTICLE: After 20 years, healing and heartache from TWA Flight 800

ARTICLE: TWA Flight 800 wreckage used in NTSB training
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