|FINAL REPORT: TWA FLIGHT 800|
August 22, 2000
After a background report, two experts discuss the crash of TWA Flight 800 and the National Transportation Safety Board's two-day meeting about the incident.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining us now to discuss today's analysis
of the TWA 800 crash, Michael Goldfarb, former chief of staff at the
Federal Aviation Administration. He now runs a consulting firm on aviation.
And Christine Negroni, former aviation reporter for CNN and author of
"Deadly Departure: Why the Experts Failed to Prevent the TWA Flight
800 Disaster and How it Could Happen Again." Welcome to you both.
Christine Negroni, you were at the hearing today and of course it's now been four years since July of 1996 when this crash occurred. What did you learn today that you didn't know before?
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: Well, what I learned today that I didn't know before, well, I didn't learn anything that I didn't know before and it wasn't in "Deadly Departure." But I would say what the public heard is that the NTSB can say that wiring outside of the airplane -- short circuiting in the wiring outside of the airplane -- allowed a higher than permissible current, a higher than safe amount of current into the center wing tank and that that caused the explosion of the aircraft and you heard in your package that Bernie Loeb said it's the most likely cause of the crash.
So while we keep hearing in the media the cause of the crash is a mystery, it's a mystery, it's a mystery, I've been arguing in "Deadly Departure" that it is not a mystery at all. We pretty much know what caused it, and four years' worth of scientific detective work by the National Transportation Safety Board has led to the conclusion that we have two problems. We've got aging wires on airplanes, and that allows cross circuits and dangerous situations including fuel tank explosions and fire and smoke and all sorts of other things. And we have a fuel tank design problem on all Boeing aircraft that allows these tanks to be in an explosive state 30% of time.
TERENCE SMITH: All right.
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: A bad amount of time.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Goldfarb, this was one of the longest and costliest investigations ever -- I guess the most.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: Have they got to the bottom of it?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: I think they pretty much, as Christine has suggested -- they know now the likely series of events that led to this tragedy. They may not know exactly whether the fuel quantity indicator -- the electrical system how it caused the vapors to explode -- but they certainly know enough to end this phase of the most costly investigation in aviation history -
TERENCE SMITH: This phase?
|Don't know exactly what happened|
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: This phase. I mean, this is - I have the unenviable task of trying to defend FAA actions here - but here is a case where FAA issued in aviation parlance over 40 airworthiness directives to the industry saying we don't know exactly what brought this plane down, but we know that there are three things that constitute a combustible explosion on an aircraft and we're going to look at each one, and we're going to basically ensure that the wires are safe, that a flammable mixture does not occur, and that we have in place the system to keep things safe.
TERENCE SMITH: Christine Negroni, have we, has the industry made the changes necessary and recommended?
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: Well, no, I'll argue this -- what my concern is: The FAA about two or three weeks ago had a news conference in which I was able to participate. And they talked about what we are going to do in the future. And they are going to sit down again and they are going to take a look at some technologies to make fuel tanks less volatile or volatile for a less amount of time, and that is all looking forward. That is, you know, that is good. I'm not going to argue with the fact they are going to make some changes but the frustrating part for me and I think even more frustrating for those people who lost someone on Flight 800 is it didn't have to happen this way. They have known since 1963 that they have a problem with --
TERENCE SMITH: 1963?
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: 1963 -- with explosions on fuel tanks. Michael. The NTSB recommendation made on a ruling on fueling tanks in 1996, was the third recommendation made by air aviation safety folks. The first was made in '63. The second made in '71. The third was made after the 13th fuel tank exploded.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: I hear you.
TERENCE SMITH: Have they been done?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: A bit alarmist in terms of the history that she reconciled. One of the biggest problems in aviation is that the remedy is often as difficult as the presenting problem. Let me give you an example. I think Christine will talk about what is called inerting of nitrogen. If you put nitrogen into a fuel tank, it, in effect, negates oxygen's ability to mix with flammable vapors and create a fire.
TERENCE SMITH: An explosion.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: One would say, oh well, let's go out and make sure that inerting systems are there to put that into an aircraft. Then the question becomes: Do we do that at the terminal? How do we do that? What is the impact of inerting on other parts of the aircraft? It's difficult to convey in sound bytes the safety issues. I think many times what happens is people say, why, why we had these things with a 20-year history. We haven't had a crash. There's a lot of problems in aviation and fuel safety although that crash was horrible ranks pretty low in terms of the top ten problems that passengers face when they board an aircraft. And so given budgets, given priorities, it has not been high on the list
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: Because the body count wasn't high enough.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: No.
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: A sense that the body count wasn't high enough. Michael if they started looking at the technology in 1963, they would have resolved some of these issues. I'm not saying it's simple let's install it today and use it tomorrow but they had from 1963 to at least consider it. They dismissed it out of hand two times after, after fuel tank explosion and fuel tank explosion and fuel tank explosion.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me put the question to you this way, which seems to be fundamental. Has enough been done in the industry to avoid a repetition?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Probably not.
TERENCE SMITH: If not, why not?
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Because I think on the wiring systems themselves, that TWA 800 uncovered a whole world of aviation concerns that heretofore had not been uncovered. And that is why the response, Christine, to 20, 30 years of knowing of a problem, it didn't lead to action. If you think about what an action would require -- the grounding of a fleet or putting in of a cure -- without any known example of a crash or problem, so they probably haven't done enough here.
TERENCE SMITH: You would agree with that, I suppose?
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: Absolutely. I'll agree.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: We are in agreement on something. They haven't done that. But in this case, FAA is the wrong target. They've been rather aggressive with the industry in terms of asking industry to comprehensively review the wiring of the 37, 27, D.C. 10, Airbus. 10,000 planes have been inspected. All wiring systems have been checked, and that is aggressive action for the FAA to take. So in case I think they've done the right thing. I'm not sure the industry has stepped up enough. I think Chairman Hall's comments have we done enough -- probably no.
TERENCE SMITH: You would argue that they have not --
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: No, absolutely. I think the greater problem is the state we are in now in the industry, the industry doesn't step up until the FAA says do it. TWA Flight 800 went down four years ago. Has a single airline started to be proactive? Let's go take a look at our own wiring. Let's take a more thorough analysis of our own wiring situation, of our fuel tank maintenance programs. Have any of them done that? They are all sitting around and waiting for the FAA to take action. If you wait for the FAA to take action, you are going to be sitting for a long time because that's just the way they work. No one is being proactive in the industry either, and that's the frustrating part. We can't count on the FAA to act swiftly and we can't even count on airlines -
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: I'm not sure, Christine -
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: -- to be aggressive on their own -
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: I'm not sure we know how to fix the problem. So I'd like to understand better what you see the fix as. I'm not sure we understand what do we focus on? Three things. We are trying to use nitrogen inerting -- it's going to take three to five years to figure out how to advance that technology in the commercial practice. We're trying to set new flammability standards for next generation fuel. We've taken every single wire in that entire aircraft. We tried to wrap it better, we tried to protect it. What specifically should the FAA do or the industry do right now?
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a short answer to that, Christine?
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: Well, I think what they should do is start looking seriously at some of these things that have been brought up. You talk about fuel tank inerting. This is not a new technology. They do it do bring bananas up from Chile. It's not a new technology.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you both this; I'm curious. The decision to terminate this investigation now, is it simply that they have run out of things to test and to do?
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: They are as close as they are going to be. They're as close as they're going to be.
MICHAEL GOLDFARB: But you know, I think the country has to realize in a booming economy that the aviation infrastructure is improperly funded. Example: The FAA's entire research budget - NTSB's as well -- $200 million. Dot.com twenty-eight-year-olds out in the Beltway have more in their personal portfolio than the federal government has for funding research. Fuel tanks aren't the only things. There are a whole host of other technologies that need to be examined. Given the choices that they make, they're trying to do the best they can on this one.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael Goldfarb, Christine Negroni, thank you both very much.
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