Boeing delayed handing over study of fuel tanks to TWA 800 investigators
Senator: Information might have helped prevent crash
October 30, 1999
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The day in July 1996 when TWA Flight 800 took off from New York on a doomed journey to Paris was hot, and air conditioners kept the Boeing 747 cool.
But, investigators say, the air conditioners also heated the jet's center fuel tank, creating dangerous vapors -- which became lethal when ignited by an unknown spark as the plane cruised over Long Island Sound.
Now, newly uncovered documents show that Boeing knew about problems with center fuel tanks overheating as far back as 1980, when it tested its fleet of military 747's.
Yet, Boeing officials never alerted the National Transportation Safety Board about those findings. Nor did the company turn over the documents as required following the explosion and crash of TWA 800, in which 230 people died.
The NTSB says Boeing's failure to report that information causes "dismay and displeasure." Sen. Charles Grassley (R- Iowa) sees a link between the failure and the TWA 800 disaster.
"If (Boeing) knew these things presumably 10 years ago or even before that, perhaps the TWA 800 explosion would never have taken place and there would not have been 230 lives lost," Grassley said.
Boeing questions study's relevance
Boeing tells CNN it's embarrassing that the 1980 study was overlooked. However, a Boeing official says the study focused on fuel pump problems in military, not commercial versions, of 747s and questions its relevance.
The NTSB disagrees. Sources there say that having the study could have helped them investigate a 1990 fuel tank explosion in the Philippines by sending up a red flag and possibly leading them to recommend fuel tank changes.
"I don't know if this one document would have done it, but it would have contributed to preponderant evidence saying we need to take care of this," says Bill Kauffman, an aeronautical engineer at the University of Michigan who has studied aircraft fuel explosions for 30 years.
Bomb theory might have been ruled out earlier
NTSB sources say that even armed with the 1980 study, which surfaced this year in a meeting between the military and Boeing, preventing the TWA explosion would have been difficult because of the complexity in changing airline safety rules.
But, those sources say, the study would have helped them make their case much earlier that the cause of the explosion was mechanical failure, not a bomb or missile, which they've now ruled out.
Some of the key findings of the 1980 Boeing study are almost the same as those later pieced together by NTSB investigators following the TWA crash -- that air conditioners and hot runways can overheat fuel tanks and insulation should be used in the tanks to block out that heat.
"The bottom line (is) the NTSB did not have this information, there has been a lot of time wasted, a lot of wasted money and a compromise of public safety," Grassley said.
Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration came out with sweeping changes to make fuel tanks safer. Three years after the TWA explosion -- and 19 years after Boeing's study -- the NTSB says it plans to use the study's findings in its final crash report, which is due out next spring.
FAA proposes rules to reduce risk of fuel tank explosions
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