Saturday, July 17th marks the 25th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 that exploded shortly after takeoff from New York, killing all 230 people on board. While many events since that day in 1996 have eclipsed the story in size and scope (the 9/11 attacks and the Corona pandemic to name but two) the theory lives on that the official cause of the crash was covered up.
“Look-backs” at the accident necessarily include the unlikely scenario that the flight from New York to Paris was felled by a missile. But the theory flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that the cause of the disaster was embedded in the airplane’s design.
Rumors that the plane was shot down got started that very night when some eyewitnesses reported seeing a light ascending in the sky toward the airplane. Further fueling the theory – albeit probably not intentionally – was the then-director of the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Kallstrom. The day after the crash and for months on end, he appeared on television promising that the FBI would find the people responsible. (Mr. Kallstrom died earlier this month.)
A four-year investigation, however, determined the cause was not an intentional act of terrorism or the inadvertent firing of a missile from a US Navy ship. Instead, poor decisions during the design of the Boeing 747 were contributors.
If that sounds a lot like the news following the much more recent deadly crashes of two Boeing 737 Max airplanes in 2018 and 2019 and the 4-month global grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2013, that’s because it is.
Over a span of fifty years, from the certifications of the original 737 and 747 in the sixties to the introduction less than a decade ago of powerful lithium-ion batteries on the 787 and powerful flight control software on the 737 Max, safety investigations have repeatedly found that Boeing made critical errors and lied about them.
In the case of the 737, an airplane that would go on to become the manufacturer’s best-selling airplane, Boeing convinced the FAA in the sixties that it could forego a requirement that a critical feature on the airplane’s rudder have a back-up. Even after two fatal crashes, one in 1991 and another in 1994 and a few attention-getting near-disasters, Boeing was still defending its decision. There was nothing wrong with its airplane, Boeing held, pilots were mishandling the controls.
Then, in 1996, a Boeing engineer reviewing test data discovered the fail-safe mechanism on the rudder could indeed cause it to swing in a direction opposite the one commanded by the pilot, with deadly consequences.
This is a separate problem from the more recent issues on the 737 Max, which is a far different airplane from the one approved in 1967. They are similar, though in the way Boeing manipulated the FAA during the certification process and Boeing’s defense of its conduct following two Max crashes.
A Congressional investigation found that six years before the first Max crash Boeing knew that if the new software it had installed on the airplane triggered, a pilot might not have sufficient time to recognize the problem and fix it. It kept this and other critical information from the regulators.
Just a few years earlier, Boeing convinced the FAA to allow highly flammable lithium-ion cobalt oxide batteries as a power source on another new airplane, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. I go into great detail on this process in my book, The Crash Detectives. But in brief, the FAA told Boeing, if the company wanted to use this volatile chemistry, it would have to make sure the batteries wouldn’t heat up uncontrollably, spread to adjacent cells, catch fire, explode or emit toxic gases.
Two years after the Dreamliners began flying passengers, the batteries on two 787s, flown by Japanese airlines did everything they were not supposed to do. On a Japan Airlines 787 the battery started emitting smoke while the plane sat on the ground in Boston. Nine days later on January 16th, an All Nippon Airways flight to Tokyo had to make an emergency landing in Takamatsu when its batteries overheated. No one was injured in either event but investigations began in both countries.
After a 2-year examination, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded Boeing’s decision-making was flawed and the FAA failed to catch it.
This takes us back to the company’s most famous product, the Boeing 747, widely known as the Queen of the Sky. When TWA’s Paris-bound jumbo jet exploded 13 minutes after takeoff, the world was incredulous. Planes just don’t blow up. And though that’s not exactly true, it explains why people immediately started talking about bombs and missiles.
But the investigators soon learned that the blast was the result of the ignition of the airplane’s nearly empty center fuel tank. The source of that ignition was never determined with certainty. It was clear, though, that the tank was in an explosive state due to heat-generating equipment located directly below the tank. The fuel was supposed to act as a heat sink, absorbing and distributing it. No plan seemed to exist for how to deal with high temperatures when the tank was empty, a then-common practice on flights of a certain length.
Given the way airlines operate their planes, carrying no more fuel than necessary, that meant that fuel tanks could be ready to ignite as much as 30 percent of the time.
As I reported in Deadly Departure, my book on the crash and investigation, Boeing knew for years that this design created a hazard but it never did anything about it before Flight 800. Even after the crash, it did not share this information with investigators. The NTSB only learned this when an Air Force official told an acquaintance about it at a conference in 1999 – three years after the crash. But this understanding of the design flaw in the 747 was the NTSB’s “ah hah” moment.
All of which is to say that creating designs with unintended consequences and bamboozling government air safety officials about them seems to be a well-established practice at Boeing. So how much of a leap then is it for those who found a missile attack coverup credible 25-years ago to be convinced over the years that maybe, just maybe, it was Boeing that had something to hide?
Flight 800 came apart in a shower of flames after taking off from one of the world’s busiest international airports in one of the world’s biggest media markets. Since then, volumes have been written, documentaries produced and most notably, new rules put in place to reduce the possibility of fuel tank explosions.
The fixes were proposed in 2008, 12 years after the crash of TWA 800. But even at that snail’s pace, regulators have moved faster than those who to this day find it easier to cling to an alternative reality – even when real corporate cover-ups stare them in the face.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.