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Engineer's warnings unheeded before TWA 800 explosion

Commercial industry slow to address fuel tank risk, he says

By Jeffery Reid
CNN

Cleve Kimmel
Cleve Kimmel stands in front of one of many aircraft that he used in his decades in the aviation industry.

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BILLINGS, Montana (CNN) -- Aerospace engineer Cleve Kimmel's worst fears were realized on July 17, 1996, when TWA Flight 800 exploded in mid-air after takeoff from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Investigators later concluded a spark in the aircraft's center fuel tank likely led to the blast -- an inevitability that Kimmel said he had spent more than 30 years warning airlines about.

"You can't put them out of your mind," Kimmel, now retired and living in Montana, said 10 years after the crash. "It was a needless loss, as far as I'm concerned."

Kimmel spent the better part of his life developing a safety process called "inerting" that took oxygen out of fuel tanks and replaced it with nitrogen, a gas that will not burn, thus preventing the chance of an explosion. (Watch why Kimmel believes today's airliners are at great risk -- 1:04)

The U.S. military has used Kimmel's process for decades. But the airline industry, citing high costs tied partly to the system's weight, has not fully embraced the approach.

A decade ago, federal regulators and airline officials were focused on eliminating ignition sources, said John Hickey, the director of the Federal Aviation Administration's Aircraft Certification Services.

Last November, the FAA proposed new fuel tank systems to reduce the chances of explosion, and the proposal is under review. In the meantime, Hickey adds he has "ordered almost 100 changes to designs of fuel tanks" in a bid to prevent future airline disasters.

"It wasn't until TWA 800 and the subsequent analysis that followed it where we have re-evaluated all the fuel tanks in the current fleet, where we realized that we really needed to begin to reduce the flammability," Hickey said.

Pentagon buys in, but not commercial industry

In the 1950s while working at a company called North American, Kimmel worked on the XB-70, an experimental bomber that flew so fast that friction made the fuel dangerously hot. His efforts there led to the development of "inerting," a process that he said "worked flawlessly" on military planes. (Watch video slideshow of Kimmel's early work -- :28)

Meanwhile, several disasters shook the air travel industry.

In 1963, Pan Am Flight 214, from Baltimore, Maryland, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, exploded in mid-air after being struck by lightning, killing all 81 people on board. A year later in Rome, Italy, a TWA plane -- ironically, also designated Flight 800 -- collided with a truck near the runway during takeoff. Fuel spilled from the plane, caught fire, and 49 people were killed.

These accidents led Kimmel to believe the FAA would eventually require his nitrogen process, which made the fuel system "completely safe from fire or explosion," he said.

In 1968, Kimmel shifted his focus to commercial airlines, joining the Parker Hannifin Corporation. Around this time, the Pentagon continued to use his innovation -- placing nitrogen systems, for example, on C-5 and other cargo planes then at risk in Vietnam.

But commercial airline manufacturers -- even those who showed up as Kimmel's company tested a prototype on an FAA plane in 1974 -- were slow to buy in. Even for a large aircraft, the nitrogen system was heavy, weighing as much as 2,000 pounds.

Kimmel contends that installation would have raised the price of a passenger's ticket just 5 cents (because more fuel would be needed, to account for the added heft). But industry experts said repeated maintenance would drive the price of inerting much higher.

Instead of requiring commercial planes to make fuel tanks inert, the FAA ordered less expensive fixes, including design changes and new equipment to protect against lightning.

Hickey said valuable lessons have been learned since the TWA explosion, calling the odds of another such disaster extremely remote. Overall, he said, safety has improved significantly in the past decade, claiming air travel is "better than any other mode of transportation and we continue to reduce that accident rate."

"The current fleet of 6,000 airplanes have experienced significant changes in their designs," he said. "We have separated wires that might have been problems. We have fixed bonding issues inside the tanks."

For Kimmel, thinking back to the TWA 800 tragedy, such changes have come too late.

"I hate to think that I was right," he said. "I mean that's just not the right position to be put in and it's very saddening."

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