EAST MORICHES, NY
(July 17, 1996
) - Trans World Airlines
flight 800, bound for Charles de Gaulle Airport
, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean
twelve minutes after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport
. All 212 passengers and 18 crew were lost with the aircraft, for a total of 230 fatalities.
The Boeing 747-100, registration N93119, arrived from Athens at 4:31 PM. During its refueling at JFK, its auxiliary power unit and air conditioning systems were both left running. Scheduled departure time for Paris was 7:00 PM, but the aircraft was delayed for one hour over concerns of a suspected passenger-baggage mismatch.
After takeoff at 8:18 PM, TWA800 was cleared to flight level 130 by air traffic control in Boston. The aircraft cruised at 13,000 feet from 8:27 to 8:30 PM: the captain noted a "crazy fuel flow indicator" on one of the engines. At 8:30, Boston cleared the aircraft to 15,000 feet. After the captain applied climb thrust to the engines, a loud sound was heard on the cockpit voice recorder, and the aircraft exploded in midair.
It took nine months of trawling to recover 90% of the aircraft's wreckage, which was put together like a giant jigsaw puzzle inside an NTSB hangar. Computer simulations indicated an explosion near row 23 in the main cabin: it was never totally clear what caused the explosion. Explosive residue was found inside the aircraft, but is now believed to have been left behind from a police training exercise in St. Louis several weeks before the crash.
Initially, many pundits believed that TWA800 may have been downed by a surface to air missile: some believed that it was downed by an errant US Navy warhead. The FBI investigated these claims and even fired missiles at a mockup in the desert, but in 1997 ruled that the airplane was not downed by a criminal action, and called off their investigation.
The National Transportation Safety Board ruled the probable cause of the disaster on August 22, 2000:
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. Contributing factors to the accident were the design and certification concept that fuel tank explosions could be prevented solely by precluding all ignition sources and the design and 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 vapor in the tank nonflammable.
Still, there are many who see the TWA800 investigation as yet another black helicopter
story, and who believe that the FBI was merely covering up a military mishap. The true story behind TWA flight 800 may never be known.