Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that the Federal Aviation Administration was about to order airlines to install a system to reduce the chance of fuel-tank explosions “like the one that downed a TWA Boeing 747 in 1996.” The system would essentially remove explosive oxygen in the tanks and replace it with non-explosive or inert nitrogen gas.
“The FAA would have us believe that this is being done because of a spark of unknown origin in the fuel tank of TWA 800,” observes retired United Airline pilot and veteran safety investigator Ray Lahr. “Since the advent of low volatility jet fuel, there has never been a fuel-tank explosion due to a spark, and that includes TWA 800.” Lahr does, however, have an informed opinion as to what happened to TWA Flight 800 and why the government is just now moving ahead with this billion-dollar project.
Before reaching for their wallets, those investors paying the bills might want to talk to Lahr and other aviation professionals. They might want to review the history of such spontaneous explosions on commercial airlines. They might then want to ask the next logical question: At this late date what has inspired the FAA to act? To this question, Lahr and others have an answer, and it has nothing to do with the concocted explanation for TWA 800’s demise.
The case of TWA Flight 800 is well enough known. On the night of July 17, 1996 – Iraq’s national liberation day – hundreds if not thousands of people on Long Island’s south shore watched as an unknown object streaked up from the horizon and arced over toward TWA Flight 800 in the seconds before it exploded. Two-hundred seventy would provide the FBI with specific accounts of this streaking object.
At that exact same moment, FAA radar operators out of New York picked up an unknown object on their radar screens “merging with TWA Flight 800.” Indeed, when Ron Schleede of the National Transportation Safety Board first saw the radar data, he exclaimed, “Holy C—–, this looks bad.” He added later, “It showed this track that suggested something fast made the turn and took the airplane.”
Four years after the crash NTSB officials came up with their own unverifiable explanation. According to the NTSB, at the very moment that these hundreds of eyewitness and FAA technicians were witnessing what appeared to be a missile attack, the airliner self-destructed in mid-air because of a center wing tank problem, the first such event in the 75 year history of commercial aviation.
Jump ahead to Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2001. On that day, an international panel of some 70 airline industry executives and federal officials rejected suggestions that U.S. airlines use an inerting process to prevent explosions like the one alleged to have destroyed TWA Flight 800.
The panel of aviation professionals told the FAA that the process was too costly for commercial use. They contended that the odds against a future fuel-tank explosion were far too great to justify the price tag. The unspoken implication, however, was that the odds were too great for a fuel tank to have blown this way, including TWA 800’s.
If the panelists had believed that a given 747 could self-destruct because of a fixable problem, they would have fixed those problems in a heartbeat. To reject the FAA’s recommendation, the panel had to ignore not only the NTSB’s judgment on TWA 800, but also its judgment on other alleged fuel-tank disasters in the past.
There were not many of them. Until the Flight 800 tragedy, the only listed “fuel-tank explosion” in the 80-year history of airline disasters was a Philippine Airlines 737 that blew while the plane was backing out of a Manila airport gate in May of 1990. And even this case was suspect.
The problems with the case began with its location, the benighted city of Manila, an international cesspool of Islamic terrorism and the home base of, among others, Ramzi Yousef. Yousef was the mastermind of the original World Trade Center bombing and the creator of the Bojinka plot, a plan to blow up 11 American jumbo jets in one day. More than just a schemer, Yousef was responsible for the bombing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434 on Dec. 11, 1994. Any explosion in Manila’s airport would raise suspicion as to its origins, especially if it were the only explosion of its kind in the history of aviation.
A second problem with the Philippine Airlines explosion was the nature of the damage. Reportedly, the explosion blew the entire top of the center wing tank violently upwards. The upward blast in the case of TWA Flight 800 was clearly a localized event limited to a specific area at the right side of the center wing tank, concentrated between span wise beams 2 and 3. The Philippine 737 may have blown up on its own, but if it did, it shed no light on the fate of TWA Flight 800.
When the aforementioned panel met in August 2001, it had another case to consider. A Thai Airways Boeing 737 that had exploded on the tarmac in Bangkok on March 3, 2001. This too was ruled a center wing tank explosion, but the panel had good reason to be suspicious.
The Associated Press report on the day of the Thai explosion was admirably straightforward. “A passenger jet Thailand’s prime minister was to board exploded and went up in flames 35 minutes before its scheduled departure Saturday,” noted the AP. Apparently, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was on his way to the Bangkok International Airport when the plane blew up on the runway. “Thailand has a history of coups and violent overthrows of governments,” the AP reported. “The explosion came two days after Thaksin gave Thailand’s Constitutional Court 21 boxes of documents as part of his defense against a corruption indictment that could evict him from office.”
According to the AP, the Thai Airways president had said that there was “a loud noise that sounded like an explosion” before the fire started. The AP paraphrased the plane’s captain as saying, “It was impossible for the plane to explode from an internal malfunction if the engines had not yet been started. The fully loaded fuel tanks, located in the plane’s wings, were intact … indicating that burning fuel was not the cause of the explosion.”
The New York Times was even more specific: “Minutes before Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was to board a Thai Airways jet this weekend, an explosion from beneath his assigned seat blew apart the plane.”
On March 5, CNN added more telling details. One was that the “the blast ripped through the floor and ceiling,” a likely sign of a bomb in the passenger section. The second was the identification by Thailand’s defense minister of the composition of the bomb as “definitely C-4.”
Nor was this the first time that a Thai plane had blown up. On Oct. 29, 1986, explosives planted in a lavatory of a Thai International Airways jet sent the plane plunging 21,000 feet before the plane could make an emergency landing. The plane was on its way to Osaka after a stop – where else? – in Manila.
But the investigation in March 2001 followed a pattern not available 15 years earlier. This time the explosive residue, like all other evidence of a bomb, disappeared in a hurry. On April 11, the NTSB issued a press release that reads like a crude parody of the TWA 800 investigation:
Physical evidence has been found that the center wing tank exploded. The accident [emphasis mine] occurred at 2:48 p.m. on a day with temperatures in the high 35 degree Celsius [range]. The initial explosion of the center wing tank was followed 18 minutes later by an explosion in the right wing tank. Air conditioning packs, which are located directly beneath the center wing tank and generate heat when they are operating, had been running continuously since the airplane’s previous flight, including about 40 minutes on the ground.
Note the apocryphal TWA 800 scenario now transposed to a 737 on a Thailand tarmac: the heat, the overactive air conditioning, the center wing tank explosion, even if this was a 737, not a 747, and only nine years old at that. The parody grows cruder still:
Although chemical traces of high-energy explosives were initially believed to be present, samples have been submitted to the FBI for confirmation by laboratory equipment that is more sensitive than equipment available in Thailand. Although a final report has not yet been issued, the FBI has found no evidence of high explosives in any of the samples tested to date.
How or why the NTSB and the FBI both got involved in a Thailand explosion was not at all clear. What was clear, however, was the dissembling. “Sensitive” equipment finds more explosive residue, not less. Once again the FBI made the explosive residue go away – the only thing missing was the fabled careless cop spreading residue for a bomb-hunting dog. Again, the NTSB imposed its patented center wing tank scenario, this time not in four years but in four weeks. Again, a 40-minute layover on a 95-degree day was made to seem unusually perilous. Again, the explanation held off the media.
The New York Times headlined only its second piece on the Thai Airways crash, “A Similarity Is Seen In 2 Plane Explosions.” The headline infers both the NTSB strategy and the Times’ passivity.
CNN did no better. “Investigators are also looking at any role heat-generating air conditioning units may have played in the Thai blast,” observed CNN’s online service after the NTSB changed its story. CNN noted that these units were also a “contributing factor” in the explosion of TWA 800.
That no member of the major media expressed even the faintest bit of skepticism reveals all too much about the state of American journalism. It was, of course, possible that the Thai Airways explosion did occur by accident; it was just not likely. Clearly, the panel of aviation experts gave it and TWA 800 little credence.
The American involvement in the Thai case was too quick and expedient. Still unable to identify an ignition source for TWA 800, the NTSB needed a parallel explosion to justify its miscellaneous rulings on that doomed flight. As to the Thai prime minister, the one who was about to indict his buddies in a corruption scandal, the one who was about to board the plane, he would have welcomed an alternative explanation, one that would make him look less vulnerable and victimized.
Given the flimsy evidence for all three explosions, the question remains as to why now – eight years after the destruction of TWA Flight 800 – the FAA would go to such extraordinary and expensive lengths. To Ray Lahr, the answer is obvious: the legitimate fear of terrorist missiles. If September 11 did not shake up the FAA, the simultaneous double rocket attack a year later on an ascending Israeli airliner in Kenya most surely did.
“I wish they would be honest about the problem they are addressing,” says Lahr. “They are not worried about a spark in the fuel tank because they know that is not what happened to TWA 800. They are worried about the thousands of missiles loose in this world. If a missile hits a fuel tank, a nitrogen blanket might help.”
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