“TWA Flight 800 broke apart and crashed into the Atlantic 13 minutes
after taking off from JFK International Airport in New York, on July 17,
1996. Two hundred and thirty people were killed. Before dawn, I was on
the scene, reporting the story for CNN,” says veteran journalist
“It was tragic, horrifying, shocking. But what caused the plane to
explode is not a mystery. A history of similar disasters over 35 years
could have been used to forecast and prevent the tragedy.”
One of the worst disasters in American aviation history, the in-flight
explosion of Flight 800 was followed by the most expensive airline
investigation in history. But the crash is still surrounded by a cloud
of doubt, suspicion and multiple conspiracy theories.
In her just-released book, “Deadly Departure: Why the Experts Failed to
Prevent the TWA Flight 800 Disaster and How it Could Happen Again,”
Negroni reveals what the aviation industry has known for 35 years —
that confined vapors in the fuel tanks can create a bomb-like
But every time a plane blows up — TWA Flight 800 was the 14th fuel-tank
explosion on a commercial airliner in 35 years — the airline industry
has persuaded regulators to deal with symptoms and not the expensive
causes of the problem.
In this interview, WND’s Geoff Metcalf and Negroni probe the hotly
contested theories in an attempt to shed light on the real cause of TWA
Question: We have heard all the conspiratorial scenarios about TWA
Flight 800, from naval missiles to terrorists’ schemes, but “Deadly
Departure” explains why the experts failed to prevent that disaster, as
well as the sad, frustrating and frightening fact that it could happen
What really ticked me off when I read your book was that Boeing, who
manufactured the plane, and the FAA allegedly agreed to permit what they
knew to be a design flaw to exist.
Answer: Well, they did. They started looking for ways of solving the
problem short of really solving the problem. As a columnist here in New
York wrote, and I wish I had written it in my book, “they looked at the
sniper on the roof, and instead of trying to get the sniper on the roof,
they went through the neighborhood and tried to find the ammunition … ”
Essentially, I think that is analogous to what happened with flight 800.
Q: Specifically what?
A: Flight 800 had a problem that is common to Boeing’s fleet of
aircraft. It has a center wing tank with heat-generating equipment
underneath. It’s not actually in the wing. It’s between the wings where
the wings and the fuselage come together in the aircraft.
There is the tank. It is getting hot on a regular basis from this
machinery underneath, and once it gets to a certain temperature that is
over 115 degrees, if other conditions are right, you can have an
explosion in that tank.
Q: We know that MBA types always go through their cost benefit
analysis. How much is it going to cost, and is it cheaper to actually
pay a few lawsuits than fix an expensive problem …
A: That’s required when the FAA makes a recommendation. The first
thing that has to be done before a recommendation is enacted is that a
cost-benefit analysis must be done.
In most cases, the cost-benefit analysis is heeded. Now there are cases
where cost-benefit analysis does not sway the decision.
Q: In other words?
A: They will occasionally call for a fix to be made, even if it is
going to more expensive than the cost of future accidents. But already
they have solicited cost-benefit analysis on changing this fuel tank
design on the fleet of Boeing aircraft.
Q: What did they discover?
A: They determined the cost of future accidents over the next 10 years
would be $2 billion. But the cost of fixing it would far more than
that. Any solution they examined would be more than that $2 billion.
Q: Which means essentially they are saying …
A: It is cheaper to take a crash than to fix the problem.
Q: One of the key points you make regarding TWA Flight 800 is, it
really didn’t have to happen?
A: No. It didn’t.
Q: What was particularly daunting was that you note Boeing knew about
this fuel-system problem with its 747s before it even started making
A: Exactly. The surprising truth that comes out of flight 800 is that
these fuel-tank explosions were happening for years and years and years.
Thirty-five years before the crash of flight 800, a Boeing 707
exploded. Not even a year later, another 707 on the runway, a TWA 707
with the coincidental flight number 800, was taxiing, and had to abort
the takeoff. The plane hit a piece of machinery and the ignition came
through the vent of the wing and right into the center tank, and that
airplane blew up — 49 people died in that one.
So they had two fuel tank explosions in less than a year. The Civil
Aeronautics Board, the precursor to the National Transportation Safety
Board, went to the FAA at that time and said, “We need to do something
about these exploding fuel tanks. We need to get technology on these
aircraft that will prevent tanks from exploding.” But the FAA didn’t do
anything about it. It wasn’t until 1971, when the NTSB went back to the
Federal Aviation Administration and asked for it a second time that the
FAA even scheduled a hearing, and even then the hearing didn’t happen
until 1977 — seven years after the second recommendation.
Q: What happened after the hearing?
A: Absolutely nothing. In 1996, after the crash of TWA flight 800, the
NTSB went back to the FAA — that’s now the third time — which said,
“We’ve got to do something about exploding fuel tanks.”
In the meantime, while the FAA was doing nothing with the problem
airplanes, 13 civilian aircraft and 13 military aircraft were
experiencing fuel-tank explosions.
Q: You submit evidence that Boeing deliberately withheld information
about the problems experienced with military aircraft, and that the
company was threatened with obstruction of a federal investigation?
A: The NTSB is none too pleased with Boeing’s behavior following the
crash of TWA flight 800. It felt Boeing was conducting an investigation
on it’s own, which it admitted it was doing, that it was not properly
informing the NTSB of experiments it was conducting, and that it was
being slow to inert on the subject of getting research and information
that it had on other related incidents.
Q: What was the deal with the Air Force study you reference?
A: This E4B study that was an Air Force study was four volumes long.
It was not a small document and it came out in 1979 because the Air
Force was having trouble with heat-generating equipment underneath the
center wing tank on the military 747.
Q: You say Boeing had this military study and sandbagged it?
A: Boeing never made that report available to the NTSB, even after the
NTSB found out about it, which didn’t happen until 1998. When they
finally got the report it was through the Air Force, and Boeing was
called to Washington by some investigators from the General Accounting
Office wanting to know, “What has happened here and why wasn’t the NTSB
My understanding of that meeting is they where threatened with being
charged with interfering with a federal investigation …
Q: Who did the threatening?
A: The General Accounting Office investigator. Boeing had given the
excuse, the same excuse they had given me when I interviewed them on
this very subject. What they told me was, “The military and the
commercial side are separate, and therefore the commercial side didn’t
know what the military side was doing.”
Q: That’s a crock …
A: I challenged that argument because there was a civilian incident in
which a JAL flight lost an engine on takeoff for this very problem — an
overheated center tank — and it was cited in the military report, and
the military would have had no way of knowing about that unless the
commercial side had made the information available.
Q: Before we move on to the conspiracy angles, have Boeing’s lawyers
A: No, not at all. They would have to challenge that the book is not
true. Boeing has had this book since December. No, they have not
Q: What is Boeing’s reaction to the book?
A: Boeing’s only criticism of the book, although I disagree with it, is
that I have an overly simplified view of how decisions are made. I
don’t think that is the case. I recognize this is a very very
complicated situation, but I don’t think you can ignore 35 years of
fuel-tank explosions, and then say, “Oh yeah, now we have a problem, now
we need to fix it.”
As if there was no history, no precedent to what has happened. No,
their lawyers have not contacted me and I can’t imagine any reason they
Q: Your conclusions are that there was a conspiracy in the crash of TWA
flight 800, but not all the others we have heard and read about. Navy
Commander William Donaldson has been widely quoted.
A: I have spoken to William Donaldson. I have spent a great deal of
time on the phone with him, and with Fred Meyers and Ian Goddard. I
have a list of all those folks whose names are popping up on the
Internet as the ones who have the real story of what happened
with TWA 800. I have listened to them. I have listened to them plenty.
They just don’t have the evidence. Their hearts are in the right place,
they think they are doing a good thing, but I think they are wrong. I
think they are not only wrong about what happened, but they are wrong
about whether they are doing a good thing.
Q: How so?
A: Because every bit that we allow the people to think that this is a
missile that took down this plane or an act of terrorism or friendly
fire or whatever is that much more fog that is over the real issue.
Q: Which is?
A: That we have an aviation safety problem here and it needs to be
addressed. I think that it’s a real harm that the conspiracy theorists
are doing, and I don’t think they are doing it advertently, but I do
think it is a consequence of what they are doing.
Q: You suggest there was a conspiracy, but that it was a
conspiracy of inaction.
A: Yes. I think the regulators and Boeing thought that if they went
around and attacked all the symptoms of the problem — that maybe
static that was generated in the tanks, or pumps that might not be
working properly, or lightning, or the length of the wing vent, or
whatever little symptom had caused the last explosion — that perhaps
they could not worry about the bigger picture.
Q: Which is what?
A: Which is that these fuel tanks are in an explosive state 30 percent
of the time.
Q: How many have suffered tragedies as a result of this particular fuel
A: The number the FAA came up with in the public hearing in 1997 was 13
military fuel-tank explosions and 13 commercial fuel-tank explosions.
But that is not all of them. The FAA number crunchers wanted to go back
and take a look at some of the accidents that happened that were not
fuel-tank explosions initially — something else had gone wrong, such as
a plane had crashed, the fuel tank had remained intact after the crash
and then exploded, affecting the survivability of the people on board.
The quick and easy way is to think that the plane crashes and everybody
dies. But that’s not really the case. There was an accident near me in New
Haven, where the plane crashed. One person died in the crash, 28 people
failed to escape the burning aircraft and died in the subsequent fire.
What the FAA wanted to know was: Could fuel tank inerting — that is,
putting something on board that prevents the tank from being in an
explosive state — could it have prevented those deaths? And the short
and premature answer, because the study is still ongoing, is yes. They
think more lives could have been saved, even in these post-crash
Q: The obvious question readers are going to have is, ‘How safe is it
A: I think it is safe to fly. I think it could be safer.
Q: What about the 140-something people who saw that white light rising
just before the plane blew up?
A: I think those poor eyewitnesses have been so misrepresented they
probably don’t know themselves anymore what happened.
Q: Wait a minute. Some of these witnesses are aviation types.
A: I’m not arguing with what they saw. I think they saw what they saw.
I think they knew what they saw the first time when they started telling
people what they saw. But I think what they saw and what everyone out
here and in the media and everyone watching the media was told they saw
are two different things.
The biggest misconception is that hundreds — I’ve even heard
‘thousands’ — of people saw something rising in the sky and hitting the
Q: I’ve heard from 110 to 140.
A: It’s not true. You go through the witness reports, and I’ve seen
them. There are only four out of 180 or something who actually turned in
witness reports, who even acknowledge having seen the plane.
These people who said they saw something in the sky did see something in
the sky, but they never said they saw the 747. A 747 is 230 feet by 230
feet wide, roughly, so it’s pretty big. But it’s two miles up in the air
and ten miles out to sea. A missile, a big missile, is about 10 feet
long and maybe 18 inches around.
So how can you not see a 747 and still see something so proportionately
smaller? It doesn’t make sense. It’s illogical.
Secondarily, the missile experts say even if a missile had been fired at
the airplane it would only have put out a flaring trail for the first
half of its flight, but for the second half of its flight it is flying
on momentum. So at the point in the sky where it would actually be
approaching the plane, you wouldn’t see it because there is no
Q: Chris, those people saw something. What did they see?
A: I’ll tell you what I think they saw, and it’s the same thing the CIA
says they saw. They saw the plane after the initial explosion, before
the secondary explosion. They saw it rising in the sky because the nose
had, seven seconds after the first explosion, fallen off and the center
of gravity shifted back. This is a 747 flying without the front end.
The cockpit, the first-class section and a chunk of the business class
section were already gone.
What happens to the center of gravity? It shifts back, the engines are
still turning and they are propelling the airplane up into the sky, so
they see the light of this explosion and the plane going up into the sky
and then the wing tanks start to rupture because of the force of the
airstream. And as the wing tanks rupture, they start atomizing a mist of
fuel, which of course quickly ignites. And then they see a
Q: Are you saying that the CIA, like a broken clock, might be right
twice a day?
A: (laughing) Yes … I think in this case, they tried to put together
what these witnesses saw along with the facts of what they had.
Remember, there are facts here. There is a lot of wreckage coming up
from the ocean, there are things they can tell from the radar data and
from the places in the water where the airplane came apart.
Q: And for the allegedly confused witnesses?
A: I don’t think these witnesses are crazy. I think the witnesses are
right on. I think they have been misinterpreted from the get-go — to
the point where they may not even know anymore what they said they saw
and what it is people are telling them they saw.
Q: I saw a line somewhere that said ” … you should never confuse
bumbling with a conspiracy.”
A: If the government was involved in shooting down this airplane, I
don’t think they are organized enough, or frankly in some cases smart
enough to hide it for four years with the world looking on, and the
number of reporters who were assigned to cover this crash. I just don’t
think it’s possible.
Q: I’d really like to find out from someone, somewhere, somehow, how
many of these fuel-tank type accident tragedies have actually happened.
You tell us the FAA has acknowledged 13 commercial and 13 military
accidents from failed fuel systems. I’d sure like to learn what the
gross number is.
A: The point is, if you figure 26 accidents in 35 years, that’s like
once every two years. That’s pretty common, and it is not the accident
that never happened before and will never happen again.
Geoff Metcalf is a staff
reporter for WorldNetDaily.