Skip to main content

Flight 800 conspiracy? Where's proof?

By Sylvia Adcock, Special to CNN
updated 1:15 PM EDT, Thu June 20, 2013
Accident investigators said Wednesday, July 2, they would not re-open the probe of the mid-air explosion that brought down TWA 800 nearly 18 years ago on July 26, 1996, killing all aboard. The decision by the National Transportation Safety Board dashed the hopes of a documentary film team claiming to have uncovered "solid proof" that investigators erred in concluding it was an accident. <!-- -->
</br>Here, a section of the wing of TWA Flight 800, seen here a couple of days after the crash, floats in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island, New York. Accident investigators said Wednesday, July 2, they would not re-open the probe of the mid-air explosion that brought down TWA 800 nearly 18 years ago on July 26, 1996, killing all aboard. The decision by the National Transportation Safety Board dashed the hopes of a documentary film team claiming to have uncovered "solid proof" that investigators erred in concluding it was an accident.
Here, a section of the wing of TWA Flight 800, seen here a couple of days after the crash, floats in the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island, New York.
HIDE CAPTION
TWA Flight 800
TWA Flight 800
TWA Flight 800
TWA Flight 800
TWA Flight 800
TWA Flight 800
TWA Flight 800
TWA Flight 800
TWA Flight 800
TWA Flight 800
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sylvia Adcock: Conspiracy theorists have long sniffed around story of Flight 800 crash
  • Documentary says NTSB finding -- crash caused by center fuel tank blast -- was wrong
  • She says findings caused new regulations; FAA doesn't make costly changes without reason
  • Adcock: There's huge amount of physical evidence NTSB right -- where's filmmakers' proof?

Editor's note: Sylvia Adcock covered aviation safety and security for Newsday from 1996 until 2005. She is editor of NC State magazine, the alumni magazine of North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

(CNN) -- It wasn't long after TWA Flight 800 exploded off the coast of Long Island on a warm July evening in 1996 that the conspiracy theorists emerged. Seventeen years later, they're still here.

I haven't seen a new documentary that purports to repudiate the conclusions of the National Transportation Safety Board, which ruled that the crash of the 747 headed for Paris was caused by a center fuel tank explosion likely ignited by faulty wiring. But I do know that -- despite all the media attention the filmmakers are getting -- their essential claim that a missile hit the plane is not new.

And neither are aircraft fuel tank explosions. In fact, they were considered enough of a danger that the Federal Aviation Administration has put in place new regulations to prevent such events. And the FAA, heavily lobbied by airlines and aircraft manufacturers who want to keep their costs low, does not enact new regulations without reason.

Sylvia Adcock
Sylvia Adcock

When I covered the four-year investigation into TWA Flight 800 for Newsday, I spent hundreds of hours interviewing investigators, scientists and experts; I walked around inside the center fuel tank of a Boeing 747 (yes, it's that big) at a plant in Seattle; and I continued to cover the aftermath of the NTSB's final report that culminated in an FAA rule to make airlines pump inert gas into fuel tanks to prevent explosions.

I remember being surprised when I first learned of fuel-tank explosions on aircraft, particularly those designed with air-conditioning units below the center tank. At first it seemed unbelievable. But when an aircraft's fuel tank is nearly empty, as is often the case with the center tank, the heat from the air-conditioning packs underneath combined with ambient temperatures can create, well, what seems like a bomb on board.

What caused TWA Flight 800 to crash?
Investigator: Lies told on plane crash
Investigator: New TWA theory is 'bull'
NTSB: Design flaw doomed TWA 800

In 1990, the fuel tank of a Philippine Airlines plane exploded on the ground in Manila, killing eight people. In 2001, a Thai Airways International plane blew up on the ground in Bangkok when its center tank exploded.

And as recently as 2006, the wing tank of a Boeing 727 exploded on the ground in Bangalore, India.

In 2000, the FAA compiled a list of 26 fuel-tank explosions dating back to 1959.

I also remember the day l learned that the system that tells pilots how much fuel remains includes electrical components located inside the tank. Although aircraft wiring is made to be strong and durable, it is also subject to the effects of aging and abrasion -- so much so that short circuits can occur. On July 17, 1996, the conditions -- a volatile fuel-air mix of vapors in the center fuel tank heated to the point of being explosive, a likely short circuit in fuel-gauge wiring and 230 people on board -- came together with a tragic result.

I can't speak to the motives of the former investigators who are calling for a renewed investigation. But it is important to note that while a poster from the film on epix.com trumpets, "inside investigators finally break their silence," one of the key investigators featured testified about the NTSB's failings before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1999. It would seem that if he had something more pertinent to say he would have said it long ago.

As for the missile theory, its main proponents were those eyewitnesses who reported seeing a streak of light in the sky on the night of the crash. That streak has been explained as the still-airborne fuselage of the Boeing 747 after the nose of the plane broke off and fell to earth -- and debris recovery patterns confirm this scenario. Metallurgical evidence showed that the fuel tank, the main structural component between the wings, exploded from the inside, with no evidence of a puncture or outside entry.

The filmmakers say they have new radar evidence. I don't know why it hasn't surfaced before now, or how it will contradict the physical evidence that shows the fuel tank exploded from the inside. I do know that when the process turns to fault-finding in aviation accidents, there are many competing interests with a stake in the game -- the pilots' union, aircraft manufacturers and airlines, all with lawyers ready to battle their side.

When I covered aviation safety, it seemed that the NTSB was the only entity with no conflicts of interest. Even the media want a good story -- and what better story than a missile and cover-up? I imagine the same can be said of people who want to sell an idea for a documentary. Fuel-tank explosions and exposed wiring just aren't that sexy.

Conspiracy theories about TWA Flight 800 are a bit like 17-year cicadas. Except they seem to emerge a bit more often.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sylvia Adcock.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT