TWA 800 is back with us again, thanks to a new documentary from filmmakers Kristina Borjesson and Tom Stalcup. The movie is called, well, “TWA 800,” and it revisits the theory that the Paris-bound 747 was destroyed not by an explosion of vapors in its empty center fuel tank, as was concluded after the most expensive crash investigation in U.S. history, but by a missile — three of them, in fact.
You’re liable to watch the film and come away suspicious of the official findings, which is of course the whole intent, but keep a few things in mind…
The first is that fuel tank explosions, uncommon as they are, are not unprecedented. Most occurred in the 1960s or 1970s, and they’ll be rarer still now that the FAA has mandated tougher wiring inspections and the installation of inerting systems for empty tanks, but according to Christine Negroni, whose book Deadly Departure is one of the most exhaustive explorations of the TWA crash, there have been at least 26 such explosions of one form or another, on both civilian and military aircraft. Most of these were minor in comparison to the catastrophe of flight 800, but not all of them were harmless. A tank explosion once destroyed a Thai Airways 737 parked at the gate in Bangkok, killing a flight attendant. “Efforts by safety investigators to do something about the explosive nature of empty or nearly empty fuel tanks began back in the 1960s,” says Negroni.
My personal opinion is that yes, it was an accidental fuel tank explosion. And if you read the full report and weigh both sides, I think you’ll feel the same way. Frankly the film is a little insulting to the many NTSB, FAA, and TWA employees who devoted so much time and effort to solving the flight 800 mystery.
The full report on flight 800 is long and daunting, but among the most compelling of the technical evidence is this: There had been intermittent problems affecting the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and the number four fuel-flow indicator (the 747 has four engines) just minutes before the explosion. These anomalies would seem unrelated, but it so happens the wire bundle to both components passes just above the center fuel tank, and is the same wire bundle suspected of having caused the explosion. The problems with the gauge and the CVR were consistent with the wires short-circuiting, and this short-circuit would ignite the fuel vapors moments later. Investigators found the wires crimped and cracked, and suspect they’d been damaged during repairs that had taken place in this area two weeks prior. Additionally there had been water leaks reported in and around the center section galley in the days leading up to the crash. This galley sits directly on top of the wire bundle. This is as close to a smoking gun as you’ll get.
Meanwhile, there are several witnesses who claim to have to seen what looked like a missile streaking toward the 747. Or, that’s what they think they saw. What they likely were looking at was the outward trajectory of the explosion — flaming pieces of the airplane moving rapidly away from the initial blast. That might sound far-fetched, but it’s very common for people to misinterpret or, to use a George W. Bush word, misremember, the relative motion and other details of fast-moving things in the air, particularly when their attention is drawn to them suddenly — missiles, meteorites, airplanes. Many of the TWA eyewitnesses who heard something and then looked up, were 50-60 seconds behind the event due to speed of sound. Moreover, as any crash expert will tell you, eyewitness accounts in general are notoriously unreliable. Read some of the eyewitness statements from of the crash of American Airlines flight 587, just to pick one. It’s unbelievable what people were absolutely convinced they saw.
And beyond the wreckage forensics and witness testimony, what about this missile theory? Missiles from where? An accidental firing from a nearby U.S. Navy ship, is the claim (no terrorist group ever took responsibility). But to accept that, we also have to accept the idea of a complete, utterly seamless coverup that has lasted the better part of 20 years. When the Navy accidentally shot down an Iran Air jet in 1988, killing 290 people, it took approximately five minutes for the truth to come out. Granted, the downing of a U.S. jetliner would, for Americans at least, be a lot more scandalous, but isn’t the idea of such an airtight conspiracy not just a little unrealistic?
And not for nothing, but the movie poster for “TWA 800” couldn’t even take the time to show the correct aircraft. The plane in the picture has two engines, not four, and looks to be an Airbus A300. Not even close.
It is not unusual for a long-range jetliner to depart with an empty fuel tank — usually the center. A New York-Paris flight takes between six and seven hours. Even an older 747-100, like the one used by TWA, had a maximum range that was several hours longer.
With 230 fatalities, TWA 800 doesn’t make the global top ten when it comes to worst-ever crashes, but it remains one of the deadliest on U.S. soil, placing a somewhat distant third to the crashes of American Airlines flight 191 at Chicago in 1979, in which 273 people were killed, and American 587 in 2001.