Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the controversial plane crash commonly referred to as the TWA Flight 800 accident. The event involved the in-flight breakup of a Boeing 747-131 operated by Trans World Airlines rather shortly after departure on 17 July 1996.
The accident aircraft was registered as N93119. The flight departed John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) about 2019 (EDT), with 2 pilots, 2 flight engineers, 14 flight attendants, and 212 passengers on board. All 230 people on board were killed, and the airplane was destroyed. It was bound for Charles DeGaulle International Airport, Paris, France. The loss of the aircraft and all aboard took place at approximately 2031 EDT.
This plane crash was among the most controversial in aviation history. Theories offered by parties of variable credibility ranged from bombs on board to anti-aircraft missiles fired by US Navy ships.
Here is the official verdict of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB):
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the TWA flight 800 accident was an explosion of the center wing fuel tank (CWT), resulting from ignition of the flammable fuel/air mixture in the tank. The source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but, of the sources evaluated by the investigation, the most likely was a short circuit outside of the CWT that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system.
Contributing factors to the accident were the design and certification concept that fuel tank explosions could be prevented solely by precluding all ignition sources and the design and certification of the Boeing 747 with heat sources located beneath the CWT with no means to reduce the heat transferred into the CWT or to render the fuel vapor in the tank nonflammable.
History of the Accident Airplane*
The accident airplane, N93119, a 747-100 series airplane (model 747-131), serial number (S/N) 20083, was manufactured by Boeing in July 1971 and purchased new by TWA. The airplane was added to TWAs operating certificate on October 27, 1971, and, except for a 1-year period, was operated by TWA in commercial transport service until the accident occurred. According to TWA records, the accident airplane had 93,303 total hours of operation (16,869 flight cycles) at the time of the accident. The 747-100 is a low-wing, transport-category airplane that is about 225 feet long and 63 feet high (from the ground to the top of the vertical stabilizer), with a wingspan of about 195 feet. The 747-100 can carry about 430 passengers and cargo.
The accident airplane was equipped with four Pratt & Whitney (P&W) JT9D-7AH turbofan engines. Company maintenance records indicated that the No. 1 (outboard left) engine, S/N 662209, was installed on the accident airplane on December 31, 1995, and had operated about 47,989 hours since new; the No. 2 (inboard left) engine, S/N 662593, was installed on the accident airplane on December 6, 1995, and had operated about 80,884 hours since new; the No. 3 (inboard right) engine, S/N 662426, was installed on the accident airplane on June 18, 1996, and had operated about 80,336 hours since new; and the No. 4 (outboard right) engine, S/N 662463, was installed on the accident airplane on May 11, 1996, and had operated about 77,061 hours since new.
According to TWAs dispatch documents for the accident flight, the airplane’s takeoff weight was calculated to be 590,441 pounds, including 19,751 pounds of cargo (6,062 pounds of cargo in the forward cargo compartment and 13,689 pounds of cargo in the aft and bulk cargo compartments) and 176,600 pounds of fuel. TWA dispatch records and load information recorded by the CVR indicated that there were 29 passengers in the first-class cabin, 183 passengers in the coach cabin, and 18 crewmembers (4 flight crewmembers and 14 cabin crewmembers) on board the airplane. The dispatch documents indicated that the airplanes takeoff center of gravity (c.g.) was calculated to be 18.4 percent of the mean aerodynamic chord (MAC), and the takeoff horizontal stabilizer trim setting was 6.1 units nose up.
Stock photos courtesy AeronauticPictures.com: Airplane Stock Photos