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ABC News : A "Bomb" In Every Jumbo Jet

According to a story in The New York Times of December 15, 1996, the missile team was the only one to come up with a "persuasive scenario for how it could have happened."   They have been silenced, but much to the dismay of the FBI and the NTSB, individuals with access to the evidence have foiled the efforts to cover this up.

AIM Report : June-B 1997

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On June 4, ABC's PrimeTime Live misused the crash of TWA Flight 800 and the tragic loss of 230 lives to frighten airline travelers into thinking that they risk a similar fate. Viewers were told that a "virtual bomb" is "lurking in the belly" of every large airliner. The program, titled "The Mystery of Flight 800," was put at the service of Dr. Bernard Loeb, Director of Aviation Safety of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who claimed that TWA 800 was destroyed by an explosion in its nearly empty center wing fuel tank. He indicated that every airliner that takes off in hot weather with fuel tanks that are not completely full risks a similar fate.

Large airliners don't need to fill up all their fuel tanks for most of their flights. They save money and reduce the risk of accidents by not carrying excess fuel. Loeb sees a hazard in this. TWA 800, with no more than 100 gallons of fuel in its big center wing fuel tank, had been waiting two hours to take off. Loeb claimed on PrimeTime Live that its air-conditioning packs, located beneath the fuel tank, heated the fuel enough to vaporize some of it, creating what host Sam Donaldson called "a virtual bomb ready to explode." Loeb admitted that the investigators had not been able to find anything that might have ignited this "bomb," but he brushed that aside, saying if there had been no explosive vapor, there would have been no accident.

Loeb said he had recommended last December that the FAA require that the airlines take measures to prevent such a vapor build-up, but it had done nothing to implement any of these three recommendations:

(1) Replace the air in the empty fuel tanks with an inert gas such as nitrogen that will not ignite or explode;

(2) Require that fuel tanks be full on takeoff; or

(3) Cool the fuel in partially-filled tanks by adding cold fuel just before takeoff.

PrimeTime left the impression that filling the empty tanks with nitrogen was a practical, proven remedy that the Air Force had adopted during the Vietnam War. Donaldson introduced this idea, using mothballed warplanes as props.

SAM DONALDSON: A novel idea? Get rid of the fuel vapors? Not at all. In the Arizona desert near Davis Monthan Air Base near Tucson, 5000 retired military aircraft are parked, but old as they are, many of them flew in their prime with protection from the possibility of fuel-vapor explosion. The Air Force learned about the problem of fuel vapor in Vietnam. When planes like these flew into combat, they would often be hit by ground fire. And if the projectile went through a nearly empty fuel tank, the plane would sometimes explode. The Air Force discovered that it couldn't always do something about the ground fire, but it could do something about the fuel vapors....Had the commercial airlines followed the lead of the military, TWA 800 might have landed safely in Paris in the view of the NTSB's investigator, Bernard Loeb.

Mike Hines, an Air Force veteran who teaches air crash investigation, explained, "You actually put an inert gas, a nonflammable gas that will not support combustion into the tank and therefore eliminate or purge out the fuel." This was used mainly in transport planes which frequently took off with partially-filled fuel tanks. A tracer bullet penetrating the tank could cause an explosion. Inerting the tanks made sense under those conditions, but in the three decades that Boeing 747s have flown over 22 billion miles, not one has been downed by a tracer bullet. The only 747 accident caused by a fuel-tank explosion occurred in 1976 when lightning struck the wing of an Iranian transport near Madrid. Successful measures to protect the wing tanks from lightning followed. PrimeTime could cite only two other airliner fuel-tank explosions--one caused by a bomb on a Colombian Avianca Airlines 727 in 1989, and an unexplained explosion of a Philippine Airlines 736 on the ground in Manila in 1990.

Donaldson vs. Donaldson

Sam Donaldson buttressed his effort to scare airline travelers by conveying the impression that jet fuel is as volatile as gasoline. Describing TWA 800's nearly empty center wing fuel tank, he said: To see how explosive vapor can build up in here, just remove the gas cap from your car when the gauge is on empty. (Shows removal of cap accompanied by a loud whooshing sound) That's the sound of explosive fuel vapor. If this tank was full there would be less vapor and less chance of an explosion. But on July 17, ...nobody knew that just inches below the cabin floor, the fuel tank was a virtual bomb ready to explode.

William S. Donaldson, a retired Navy attack pilot, accident investigator and volunteer adviser to AIM on the TWA 800 crash, says Sam Donaldson was putting out an absurd scare story. He says Sam should have pointed out that today's jet fuel, JA-1, is far less volatile than gasoline and the jet fuel that was used during the Vietnam War. Gasoline and the Vietnam-era jet fuel give off flammable vapors that can ignite and cause an explosion even at freezing temperatures, but JA-1 was developed to reduce that risk. Citing the authoritative Handbook of Aviation Fuel Properties, published by the Coordinating Research Council, Bill Donaldson says JA-1 does not give off those flammable, explosive vapors until it is heated to 127F at sea level.

This is called the lower flammable level, or LFL. Bill Donaldson says there was no "virtual bomb ready to explode" beneath the cabin floor of TWA 800 because the fuel temperature was far below 127F. There was an explosion, to be sure, but Bill Donaldson says this had to be the result of a violent event that suddenly raised the temperature of the fuel or agitated it violently, causing it to mist. He says the evidence indicates that the external event was a missile. The NTSB has tried to ignore, discredit or suppress that evidence, and Sam Donaldson and other journalists have helped the government try to convince the public that the cause of the tragedy was some unexplained flaw in the Boeing 747.

PrimeTime's effort to convince travelers that they take a terrible risk when they fly in any airliner with fuel tanks that are only partially filled is one more example of the extremes to which this and other TV shows are willing to go to boost their ratings. It gave short shrift to the evidence and the science that challenges the NTSB's version of what caused the TWA 800 crash. In doing so, it passed over the evidence that the board, which is supposed to find the causes of airplane accidents and recommend measures to prevent their recurrence, appears to have lost its scientific focus.

The NTSB's Mangled Facts

Bill Donaldson points out that the 50 to 100 gallons of fuel that remained in TWA 800's center wing tank would have been exposed to temperatures as low as -35 Fahrenheit during the long flight from Athens and would have been very cold on arrival in New York, probably well below zero. The plane remained on the ground for two hours with the three air-conditioner packs beneath the center wing tank running. The NTSB claims that this warmed the fuel enough to create an explosive vapor in the tank that was ignited by a spark of unknown origin after the plane took off and ascended to 13,700 feet above sea level.

According to a letter NTSB Chairman Jim Hall sent the FAA on December 13, 1996, this claim is based on a test that the NTSB had Boeing conduct in August 1996 at Edwards Air Force Base. Hall's letter gives the conclusions the NTSB reached on the basis of that test, but it gives almost none of the test data. It does not disclose the temperature of the fuel in the center wing tank when the test began or when it ended. However, it is possible to deduce those crucial numbers from other information in Hall's letter. It says that in about two hours the air conditioner packs increased the temperature of the fuel by 40F. It also says that was not enough to bring it up to the lower flammable level, the LFL, while the plane was on the ground. The NTSB assumes the LFL at sea level to be 115F, rejecting the handbook figure of 127F, claiming it is not based on adequate research.

The LFL declines as the altitude increases. Hall's letter says that as the plane climbed, "the atmospheric pressure decreased, reducing the LFL temperature and allowing an explosive fuel-air mixture to exist in the tank." It implies that this occurred by the time the plane reached 13,700 feet, the altitude at which the TWA 800 accident happened. At that level, the LFL would be about 20 degrees lower than at sea level. Accepting the NTSB's figure of 115F for the LFL at sea level, that would be 95F. Since the fuel would cool as the plane gained altitude, this means that the fuel temperature had to be above 95F at takeoff. This tells us that the fuel temperature at the beginning of the test was above 55F, because Hall's letter says it rose by 40F during the two hours from the start of the test to takeoff. The fuel in TWA 800's center wing tank when it landed at Kennedy was certainly much colder than 55F. This indicates that the test failed to replicate the experience of TWA 800, and did not support the NTSB claim that the heat from the air- conditioner packs produced "an explosive fuel-air mixture" which caused the explosion that tore the plane apart.

The NTSB's refusal to release the data from this test should have made reporters suspicious of the conclusions. They should be asking the following questions. Why was the test conducted in the Mojave Desert in August, the hottest time of the year in one of the hottest spots in the country? Is it plausible that the air-conditioner packs raised the temperature of the fuel two to four times as much as the possible increase that is given in the TWA Flight Handbook as a guide to pilots? What was happening to the ambient air temperature in those two hours?

What is the basis of the claim that research on the properties of JA-1 jet fuel is inadequate? Do you expect us to believe that the companies that have developed and produced this fuel to increase air safety neglected to determine its lower flammable level, the LFL, accurately? If the risk of partially filled fuel tanks blowing up is so great, why have there not been numerous cases of this happening, especially in jets taking off from those airports where ground temperatures frequently exceed 115F?

Journalists who have accepted the official claims that there is no evidence that a missile downed TWA 800 have not critically examined the evidence put forward to support the NTSB's claim that it was really the fuel tank that did it. If our analysis of the August 1996 test is correct, there are no test results that support the NTSB hypothesis. Unfortunately, the NTSB won't release the actual figures that correspond to those we have been obliged to deduce. The NTSB press officer says they are going to conduct further tests that will prove they are right, which suggests the first test did not do that. The fact that they know in advance what the new tests will prove is not a good sign. Last December The New York Times reported that the NTSB planned to set off a 747 center wing fuel tank explosion this year to see if the vapor from 100 gallons of fuel would have enough force to break a 747 in two. That important test has not been made, and there are no plans to make it. Instead, the NTSB plans to explode a small bomb near the center wing fuel tank of a 747 in England in July to see what kind of damage a small shaped charge will do and "more importantly," they say, what sound it will make. This confirms that they cannot explain a sound on the cockpit voice recorder that differs from anything previously recorded. (See The Downing of TWA 800 by Jim Sanders, p.144)

(Sam) Donaldson's Demagoguery Displayed

ABC's PrimeTime producers and reporters were not interested in questions such as these. Accepting all that the NTSB said without challenge, Sam Donaldson demanded to know why the FAA had not adopted the NTSB's recommendations to reduce the danger of empty-fuel-tank explosions. Tom McSweeney, Director of Aircraft Certification Service for the FAA, was shown saying, "What we have said to the NTSB in not adopting their immediate recommendation is that we believe there is a technical debate that needs to take place." The FAA launched that debate by putting a notice in the Federal Register on April 3, 1997, inviting public comments on the NTSB recommendations. This notice dealt mainly with the recommendation that systems to replace air with nitrogen in partially empty fuel tanks be required. It said this had been thoroughly studied in 1978 by a special advisory committee which concluded "that nitrogen inerting provided little or no benefit and was very costly." The cost at the time was estimated at over a billion dollars a year. It provided a list of accidents caused by fuel tanks igniting. In the past ten years there have been only two involving jet airliners--the Colombian 727, which involved a bomb, and the Philippine 736, for which no explanation has been found. The FAA noted that improved technology "may now make it possible to show that inerting fuel tanks is now cost-beneficial." Accurate information relating to this was invited, comments to be submitted on or before August 1, 1997.

The NTSB had been informed of this action last February, and PrimeTime surely knew about it, but Sam Donaldson did not report that steps had already been taken to initiate an informed technical debate. Instead, he told his audience that Tom McSweeney had some doubt that pumping nitrogen into airliner fuel tanks would make them any safer. If McSweeney explained those doubts--and he probably did--Sam didn't share the answer with his viewers. Instead, he gave an explanation attributed to "some observers"--the cost to the airlines. He referred to it as "the old business of cost-benefit analysis." He noted that in doing its cost-benefit analysis, the FAA places a value of $2.7 million on each human life. "If one life is lost in an air crash and the cost of a safety measure to prevent it from happening again is more than that, the FAA likely would not order the safety measure," Donaldson said. He suggested the FAA is not implementing the recommendations because they are more concerned about saving money than saving lives.

This is demagoguery, not honest reporting. Cost-benefit analysis is not "old business." It is a tool that is used constantly in business, government and in our private lives in determining how far we are willing to go to avoid all kinds of risks. On June 10, the National Highway Transportation Safety Commission released a report showing that the increased number of sports utility vehicles, mini-vans and pickup trucks on the road has increased the risk of death and injury suffered by occupants of lighter-weight cars. In crashes between the two types of vehicles, 80 percent of the fatalities are in the cars. Those who stick to cars are willing to accept the increased risk rather than pay the higher cost of buying and operating larger, safer vehicles. The government would not dare ban all cars from the road even if it meant saving annually many times the 230 lives lost in the TWA 800 crash.

But ABC would have us believe that no price is too high for saving a human life. Sam Donaldson said, "Under the FAA formula of $2.7 million each, the 230 lives aboard TWA 800 are worth about $621 million. If inerting (filling empty tanks with nitrogen) the commercial fleet cost more than that--and it would, the experts say-- this crash alone would probably not cause the FAA to order that extra layer of safety. What do you say to the relatives of the people who died aboard TWA 800? 'Gee, it just wasn't economically feasible to do this?'"

Obtaining Dr. Loeb's assurance that the TWA 800 accident could "absolutely" be replicated this summer in other planes, Donaldson asked, "Do you think the public is going to stand for that?" Loeb replied, "I personally hope--I know our board feels the same way--that the public does not stand for that, that the public lets the FAA know that this is unacceptable."

What should be unacceptable is the demagoguery practiced by PrimeTime Live, trying to influence a highly technical decision by using flawed tests and conclusions unsupported by evidence, seeking to convince the public that there is a potential "bomb" in every airliner, and appealing to fear and emotion to decide an important issue that should be decided by facts and reason.

What Caused The Crash?

The NTSB was pushing the theory that the explosion of TWA 800's center wing fuel tank was "the first cataclysmic event of the accident," last December, but it has yet to produce any good evidence to support that claim. Its own test shows that the fuel wasn't warm enough to generate the explosive vapors, and it hasn't identified any ignition source. There is no doubt that the center wing tank exploded, but there is considerable evidence that this explosion was the result of a missile striking the plane. The FBI had three teams looking for the cause--a bomb team, a missile team and a mechanical failure team. According to a story in The New York Times of December 15, 1996, the missile team was the only one to come up with a "persuasive scenario for how it could have happened." They have been silenced, but much to the dismay of the FBI and the NTSB, individuals with access to the evidence have foiled the efforts to cover this up. They leaked a radar tape and official NTSB and FAA documents showing that FAA technicians saw what they believed to be a missile on the tape. They leaked letters showing that the NTSB tried unsuccessfully to get the FAA to force its technicians to recant. This backed up the accounts of over 150 eyewitnesses who saw something that looked like a missile rocketing out of the ocean in the direction of the TWA 800.

They also leaked the printout showing where every piece of wreckage was recovered. It doesn't support the claim that the first cataclysmic event was the explosion in the center wing tank. James D. Sanders, the author of The Downing of TWA Flight 800, who obtained the leaked documents plus some residue that may have come from solid rocket fuel, is certain that an out-of-control, unarmed Navy missile hit the plane. Bill Donaldson, who has analyzed the radar tape sent to Richard Russell and alerted us to the importance of the fuel temperature, believes it was a missile but not one of ours.

Those Annoying Eyewitnesses

The NTSB dismisses statements given by scores of eyewitnesses who saw something streaking upward in the direction of TWA 800 immediately before the explosion. Its spokesman was quoted on June 6 as saying, "Traditionally, the NTSB does not put undue weight on eyewitness accounts." That was the day the NTSB said the eyewitnesses may have mistaken "flaming jet fuel" for a missile. Bob Orr of CBS News in reporting this story said, "Some investigators are annoyed they even have to deal with those eyewitness accounts,....but with persistent rumors of a missile and a coverup, investigators cannot afford to leave any questions unanswered." But they are leaving many questions unanswered. Maj. Fred Meyer, a helicopter pilot with the 106th Air National Guard Rescue Wing, was one of the many people who appeared on PrimeTime Live. Most were relatives of the victims and rescue workers. Even though Sam Donaldson said, "Over 100 Long Islanders who say they saw a shaft of light streaking toward the jet seconds before the crash think they know what happened," PrimeTime did not show any of them telling what they saw. Maj. Fred Meyer was shown telling what he saw after the crash, not that he had seen something streaking through the sky before the explosion.

Another eyewitness, Roland Penney, was reported in Relevance magazine's December 1996 issue as giving this account of what he saw.. He was relaxing with a group of eight family and friends on the dock at what's known as the barrier beach directly opposite of what would become a scene of devastation, when his friend, a pilot, pointed out to the ocean and said, "Look at this. We're going to have a fireworks display." Penney looked up in time to see the last second or two of a pencil-thin light climbing up into the sky. "We thought it was fireworks or a flare. After it went up, all of a sudden it just stopped dead like it hit a brick wall and then a half second later there was a bright light like a flashbulb, and then it started to descend, and it went down for a few seconds and there was a red-orange fireball which got bigger until it was the size of the top of a quart jar if you held it at arm's length. Then it broke in two."...Penney told reporters immediately after the crash, "It was something going up that hit that plane."

Heidi Krieger snapped a photo of a friend on a boat just seconds before the explosion. It shows "a pencil-thin vertical line" in the sky in the area where the fireball appeared. The FBI took the negative, but it won't tell Krieger why they wanted it. She was quoted by Relevance as saying, "I think it is a missile, only because I have this photograph; otherwise, I would believe whatever is on television." In this case, all that is on television is what credulous reporters are told by the government.

Go to Text of First Letter to National Safety Transportation Board

Go to the Donaldson File Index