The dope on TWA 800

Well I just re-upped my membership and thought I’d start with this one. Despite a search, I couldn’t find much on here about this subject.

I recently read the NTSB repost on the demise of TWA 800 which crashed off Long Island in 1996. The cause was determined to be an exploding center fuel tank which was basically empty but certainly full of fumes.

From the start, the report talks about a missile theory. The FBI and the CIA are brought in to interview witnesses. 238 witnesses are classified as ‘streak of light’ witnesses which denotes that the describe a streak of light rising upwards in the sky (the plane exploded at dusk).

The report concludes that the ignition source of the CFT is unknown (to this day).

I’m not a conspiracy theory whacko by any means but I was wondering if this has been discussed and what the SD is on TWA 800.


I am not in a position to do a search at the moment, but I was reading about this not so long ago, and IIRC the general consensus seemed to be that the “streak of light” was actually the plane and its contrail as seen from the coast, catching the light of the setting sun, and/or burning fuel after the explosion rather than anything suspicious. <— Wiki has more

Well, I’d say if you’ve read the NTSB Final Report on TWA 800 you’ve already gotten the Straight Dope on the matter. Certainly the crash investigators at NTSB were in a much better position to figure out what happened than a whole army of armchair sleuths are (even if some of those sleuths are Dopers!).

In these parts, as a rule, any conspiracy theory is quickly torn to shreads.
P.S. If you have the hamsters search <NTSB> in Great Debates you’ll find some threads on the topic.

Just type TWA 800 into the search box.

Oh, wait.

No. Both terms are too short. I will search ‘NTSB’ though.

Here is a bit more. The CIA/NTSB performed computer flight models of the plane after the front section fell off and determined that the nose fell off at 13000 ft. Because of the shift in the CoG from losing the front 40’ of aircraft, the model then has the plane flying for almost 25 seconds up to 17000’ and then exploding.

This is despite a nearby pilot who was above TWA 800 seeing it go straight down.

Many pilots experienced with the 747 have stated that the CIA/NTSB scenario is improbable. The engines would have to be providing equal thrust, the surfaces would have to be perfectly positioned and the plane cannot go into a stall. This is despite the fact that all controls to the engines and surfaces have been severed.

Why is this an issue? Because some say that the computer scenario was put forward to explain away the 238 ‘streak of light’ witnesses who described seeing something rising up from the ground.

One pilot has a law suit in a California court asking for the CIA to show their calculations behind the computer model.

I’m searching…


I know :slight_smile:

Because of tyhe reports of a streak in the sky and that it happened right about the time of one of the annual meteor showers, I was convinced for a while that it was the result of a small meteor strike. I did calculations on the chances that a meteor would hit a large commercial plane some time in a 20 year period and it was surprisingly high; about 1 in 10 if I remember correctly.

I sent an email to the reporter for the NY Times who covered the story and got a reply: he said that eyewitnesses are “notoriously unreliable”.

Mary Roach’s Stiff has an interview with a man who investigated the accident. He describes the injuries to the body as not being consistent with a missile strike. Of course, THEY could have gotten to him. :slight_smile:


Huh? Don’t most meteors burn up way before they get down to the sort of altitudes that planes fly at?

A coworker of mine (Bob Kauffman) is a chemist. He believes he determined the root cause why the center fuel tank exploded: silver-plated nuts were used on a terminal strip inside the center fuel tank.

More info here.

I am far from a conspiracy nut although I am an aviation buff. I won’t make any definitive statements but the TWA 800 incident still sounds very unusual to me. Commercial airliners aren’t supposed to just blow up. Jet fuel (aka diesel fuel, home heating oil, or kerosene) just doesn’t blow up under normal circumstances as attested by the millions of people that use it every day with no problems and experience almost zero true explosions. It will burn but it won’t explode except under the exactly correct conditions. I won’t say that it can’t happen but having a jet fuel explosion shortly after takeoff seems so extraordinarily unlikely to cause some very raised eyebrows.

The fact that makes me raise my eyebrows even more is that the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board didn’t freak out from this even more in a general sense. They are usually hyper-vigilant and demand manufacturer corrections and retrofits for any problem of that scale. We have 747’s in the sky right now as well as all other jet aircraft that could potentially blow up at any second based on their claims. The lack of follow-up on their end is very odd to say the least although I did read some vague cover recommendations to operators and manufacturers based on their findings.

It’s sad that this board has such a hard-earned reputation for knee-jerkism that a reasonable question has to be prefaced with the whole “I’m not a conspiracy nut…” bit.

While I agree with your comments about the safety of the use of diesel/home heating oil/kerosene, comparing that to an airplane is somewhat of a strawman.
What was left out of Crafter_Man’s link was that the amount of air in the tank had to be just right or nothing would have happened. Gasoline and diesel only burn in a fairly narrow range of air fuel ratios. If you have too much fumes no boom. Too little and again no boom. You can only ignite it if the mixture is correct.
Now as to the reason your comparison to home heating oil, diesel cars and trucks etc is a strawman is that your house does not regularly go from sea level to 39,000 feet. (At least mine doesn’t) As the aircraft climbs fumes must be vented from the tank to prevent over pressure. When the aircraft descends air must be admitted to the tank to prevent collapse. If the tank is empty, those altitude changes will change the air fuel ratio inside the tank. Get the ratio just right and add a spark, and plane go BOOM!
IIRC the FAA did change some regulations about fuel in the center tank. I seem to recall that the operators are required to carry some fuel in the tank, and to not allow it to be empty.

There have been similar incidences.

In 1999, the explosion of a center fuel tank destroyed a 737 in Manila, Philippines while it was on the ground:

In 2001, the center fuel tank on a 737 exploded at the gate at the Bangkok, Thailand airport:

IN 2006, a wing fuel tank exploded on a Boeing 727 in Bangalore, India:

As the link in my previous post states, chemist Bob Kauffman successfully duplicated (in the lab) one hypothesis on how the fuel tank exploded.

Yeah. Basically, when things like this happen, they identify the remains of the passengers as much as they can, note and categorize the types of injuries they sustained, and figure out where everyone sat. By looking at people’s injuries, they can figure out things like the site and severity of an explosion, based on the locations of burns and intactness of the bodies.

IIRC, the examiner’s conclusions were that the center of the fuel tank exploded, causing the plane to fall apart and passengers to plummet into the ocean. A good portion of the passengers, IIRC, died from the impact of hitting the water, rather than the tank explosion itself.

Most do, but a surprising amount of meteors become meteorites (i.e., they hit earth). I didn’t take into consideration the altitude of the planes.

This site says:

Decided to do the math again. This is scary!

I assumed that the area of a 727 is 300 sq meters (twice the wing area) and that an average of 1,000 727 equivalents are in the air at any given time. Taking the mid-point of the figures above, each year 100 meteors > 10 gm land in a million sq kilometers. That means that 30 planes a year should be hit by meteorites. Is my math correct?

One of the science channels, Discovery, TLC, History I forget which, just had a show on which included a ‘real world’ experiment.

They used a real jetliner fuel tank (though not from a 747), filled it with the same proportion of fuel/air, heated the tank as per the real plane (TWA 800 sat on a hot runway for quite some time), and then used a spark plug device inside it to simulate a short circuit. They started at very low amperage and increased it until they got a detonation. Not only was the detonation greater than expected (the tank literally blew up) but the amperage needed was much lower than expected. Not a total smoking gun, but much more than anecdotal.

They also put forth a spin on the missile theory that makes it more plausible. That a missile didn’t actually hit the aircraft, but rather detonated close enough to it that the shockwave alone caused the plane to break up. In this way there wouldn’t be any traces of heat or explosive chemicals on the plane.

I’ve never given the missile idea any credence. I simply don’t believe the military could ever cover up an accident that huge, plus eyewitness accounts of anything can be notoriously wrong. But this made me consider it at least a little.

Umm, AFAIK, in the entire recorded history of Mankind, no human has ever been struck by a meteor. One woman had one crash into her living room(?) and sustained minor injuries. Now think of how many SqM of Humans there are, then go back a few centuries. Also, no car/auto has ever been hit by one. Think about it.