Skip to main content

Flight 800 conspiracy? Where's proof?

By Sylvia Adcock, Special to CNN
June 20, 2013 -- Updated 1715 GMT (0115 HKT)
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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 2209 GMT (0609 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1802 GMT (0202 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1741 GMT (0141 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT