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What Went Wrong: Twenty Years of Airline Accidents (1996 to 2015)

What Went Wrong: Twenty Years of Airline Accidents (1996 to 2015)

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What Went Wrong: Twenty Years of Airline Accidents (1996 to 2015)

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540 pagine
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Jan 8, 2021


What Went Wrong: Twenty Years of Airline Accidents (1996 to 2015), examines the defining accidents of the period. From the human, procedural and mechanical failures which caused them, as well as some where the final conclusion remains undefined or disputed. To the positive changes they inspired on all those involved and the industry at large, which ultimately helped to make airline transport safer for the world’s travelling public.
What Went Wrong’s greater depth and enhanced insight of the involved issues and investigative process better illustrates—than other publications, documentaries or media coverage—each unfortunate event for the aviation aficionado, enthusiast and the everyday reader alike.
Jan 8, 2021

Informazioni sull'autore

Graham Deighton is a best-selling aviation author and a retired airline pilot whose career spanned thirty years with both a national carrier and a distinguished independent airline. After a number of notable accidents that changed the industry and his own outlook during his professional life, he was compelled to document these events and the changes they shaped.

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What Went Wrong - Graham Deighton


Graham Deighton is a best-selling aviation author and a retired airline pilot whose career spanned thirty years with both a national carrier and a distinguished independent airline.

After a number of notable accidents that changed the industry and his own outlook during his professional life, he was compelled to document these events and the changes they shaped.

The indiscriminate loss of life, young or old, rich or poor, is the heart-rending tragedy of nearly all air accidents. As such, this is dedicated to all such lost souls. Words can never adequately convey how deeply we regret their loss.

Copyright © Graham Deighton (2021)

The right of Graham Deighton to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by the author in accordance with section 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

Any person who commits any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

ISBN 9781528942584 (Paperback)

ISBN 9781528946087 (Hardback)

ISBN 9781528971706 (ePub e-book)

First Published (2021)

Austin Macauley Publishers Ltd

25 Canada Square

Canary Wharf


E14 5LQ


Factual information contained in this book has been obtained from official safety reports and other similar sources believed to be reliable. However, neither the publisher nor the author guarantees the accuracy or completeness of any information published herein, and neither publisher nor author shall be responsible for any errors, omissions, or damages arising out of the use of this information. Third-party opinions and suppositions, over variable periods of time, are also included to lend background and context to the subject matter, but do not necessarily represent the view of the publisher or author. This work is published with the understanding that the publisher and its author are supplying information only and not attempting to render a professional service or to draw their own conclusions. If such service is required, the assistance of an appropriate professional should be sought.


Airline accidents through their investigative identification and resultant regulation of perceived and verified shortcomings, without the apportionment of blame or the assessment of an individual’s or a collectives’ responsibility have helped to shape and reshape aviation from its tragic depths, into one of today’s safest forms of public travel.

This book, chapter by chapter, examines for the everyday person and aficionado alike, some of the most defining and occasionally unique recent accidents, which have contributed towards this ultimate endeavour.


The first plane crash came a mere five years after the first powered flight by the Wright brothers in 1903. Pioneering pilot Orville Wright was severely injured at this Fort Myers, Virginia, accident and his passenger, Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge became the first-ever powered-aircraft fatality, prompting the question, What went wrong? for the first time in the history of aviation.

Over the ensuing century, as air travel progressively increased into thousands of daily flights carrying millions of people to and from every corner of the globe, diverse and complex accidents also evolved and multiplied, in tandem. The industry reacted to these predominantly unpredictable incidents with innovative technological developments, which at the time seemed to come straight from science fiction and new and revised regulatory enforcements. But although their endeavours have undoubtedly made aviation much safer and more reliable, original and sometimes familiar types of accidents still regularly befall the industry.

In this book we examine, in chronological order, eleven different disasters, chapter by chapter, through the same background, events and analytical format of the official investigation to determine their specific pivotal causal facet. These typically range from the historical leader, pilot error, either deliberate or unintentional, followed by mechanical or technical faults and then to a lesser extent, other human failures, such as those perpetrated by air traffic controllers and engineers. However, aircraft accidents are not usually restricted to a single main cause but are a culmination of several failures, events or missed opportunities. Therefore, we further explore and dissect other direct and indirect contributing factors, such as adverse weather or pilot fatigue, and evaluate their varying degrees of influence, even the few benign cases, to unearth each accident’s complete damaging and unchecked preceding chain of events.

Having, thus, shown how an individual accident occurred, ergo what happened, we then consider the equally vital issue of why it happened and finish by acknowledging the incident-inspired technological advancements and regulatory directive’s contribution to aviation’s perpetually evolving and improving standards.

Along the way, we also take a look at some eye-opening media revelations such as those that spotlighted conflicts within Colgan Air Flight 3407 and various suppositions regarding the fate of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, which to date still hasn’t been found, to public disputes over official findings, such as with American Airlines Flight 587, the diplomatic controversy that surrounded Egypt Air Flight 990 and even the occasionally promoted conspiracy theories, similar to those associated with the mid-air explosion of TWA Flight 800.

It is sincerely hoped that the reader finds this book, which can be read in full or by selected chapters, informative and enlightening and is ultimately reassured by the diligent and relentless work carried out by the regulatory authorities, manufacturers and airlines to make their air travel, whether it be for business or leisure, as safe as possible.

Chapter One

Trans World Airlines Flight 800’s In-Flight Explosion over North East Moriches, New York, in July 1996

On July 17 1996, at 20:31 Eastern Daylight Time (00:31 GMT), just twelve minutes into a scheduled international passenger flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), New York, to Charles de Gaulle International Airport (CDG), Paris, France, Trans World Airlines Inc. (TWA) flight 800, a Boeing 747-131 aircraft, broke up in mid-air without warning and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York, killing all 230 persons onboard.

It was to become a greatly disputed loss in aviation history.

TWA was a major US carrier, which provided passenger and cargo services to more than one hundred domestic and international destinations throughout North America, Europe, the Middle East and the Caribbean, with a fleet of approximately one hundred and eighty-four aircraft and twenty-one thousand worldwide staff members. Their principal international and domestic hub was St Louis, Missouri, although, they also maintained a substantial presence at John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, from where the ill-fated flight departed.

Like other major airlines in the United States, TWA could trace its roots back to the early airmail delivery companies of the 1920s. Namely, Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) formed May 16 1928 and Western Air Express formed in July 1925 before their July 24 1930 merger to form Transcontinental and Western Air Inc., which gave rise to the acronym ‘TWA’. The new airline immediately received its first mail contract and began flying coast-to-coast with an overnight stop at Kansas City. During the Second World War, they supported the US military and this experience empowered them to enter the international passenger market in 1946, when they began regular New York to Paris services, which were later extended to Cairo, Egypt. A subtle name change to Trans World Airlines reflected the company’s changing market, yet it crucially retained the TWA logo and the trading name was adopted during this period. Next, they became the first to fly regular scheduled, non-stop transcontinental services between Los Angeles and New York, in October 1953, giving them the distinction of being the only airline with both transcontinental (America) and transatlantic routes. The growing success of TWA in this post-war period was credited to the leadership of the renowned entrepreneur, Howard Hughes, until company debts incurred with the launch of scheduled jet flights from New York to London and Frankfurt in 1959 brought an end to these golden years. As the company’s debts spiralled out of control, Hughes lost his majority hold on the airline in 1961 and four years later, he sold his remaining stocks in the company. TWA had truly entered the modern era of commercial passenger airlines, where technological advances are often mirrored with financial difficulties.

The airline slowly recovered and in time became a reliable business with steady growth, as they overtook their arch-rivals Pan American as the number one transatlantic airline in July 1969 and then in February 1970 to fly the Boeing 747 jumbo jet on their prestigious New York to Los Angeles domestic route. However, TWA’s fortunes began to decline again in the 1980s after deregulation of the commercial aviation industry and in September 1985, they reluctantly accepted a bid from corporate raider, Carl Icahn. The gradual demise of Pan Am from 1988 to their eventual collapse in 1991 allowed TWA to make some modest gains, but this was short-lived and eventually Trans World Airlines filed for bankruptcy in January 1992. In early 1993, Icahn finally relinquished all interests in the company, which was now under the control of a management committee appointed by employees, unions and creditors. The company filed for bankruptcy for a second time before making a modest operating profit of twenty-five million dollars in 1995, its first in six years. This was followed by a four hundred percent increase in earnings in the second quarter of 1996, which led the company to announce an end to its financial problems only hours before the crash of TWA 800.

Despite these periods of financial turmoil, TWA’s safety record always remained very good. In fact, the airline had only suffered eighteen crashes in its seventy-five-year history and only two as a blameless victim since 1980; a ground collision at St Louis’s Lambert Field, in November 1994, when their MD82 (McDonnell Douglas) aircraft while taking off, collided with a privately owned Cessna 441 that had mistakenly wandered onto the active runway in difficult foggy conditions, sadly resulting in the loss of both Cessna pilots and in April 1986, when a terrorist bomb tore a hole in the fuselage of a TWA Boeing 727 while flying over Argos, Greece, which claimed the lives of four TWA passengers.

On the day of the accident, the aircraft departed Athens, Greece, as TWA 881 at 05:37 and arrived at JFK Airport, New York at 16:31 Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) where it parked at Gate 27, Terminal 5. JFK is a major international and domestic airport located half a mile southeast of New York City limits, with five runways, 14/32 now defunct, 13R/31L, 13L/31R, 4R/22L and 4L/22R and several passenger terminals. Registered N93119, the accident aircraft was a Boeing 747—100 series equipped with four Pratt and Whitney (P&W) JTD-7AH turbofan jet engines that could carry approximately four hundred and thirty passengers, plus cargo. (The 747-100 series aircraft is one of several 747 models or variants. Others include the -200, -300, -SP and -SR series, which are collectively known as the ‘Classic’ series, while the newer modernised -400 variant with a stretched upper deck section and the latest -800 variant have significant enhancements and upgrades.) In total, more than eleven hundred were delivered to airlines between 1970, when it entered service and the time of TWA 800’s crash, during which its safety record was considered excellent, with only sixteen recorded hull loss accidents, four of which were terrorist incidents. The TWA flight 800 aircraft was originally manufactured in July 1971 and briefly owned by Eastern Airlines before being acquired by TWA in October 1971. They operated it full-time on commercial passenger operations, except for a one-year period from December 1975, when the aircraft was prepared for sale to the Iranian Air Force by the Boeing Military Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas, but never delivered and as a consequence was returned to TWA in December 1976. This brief association with the Iranian Air Force would later give rise to speculation and suspicion about TWA Flight 800. By 1996, the accident aircraft having completed sixteen thousand eight hundred and sixty-nine flights, with a total of ninety-three thousand three hundred and three hours of operational flying and seventy-one thousand five hundred sixty-eight average operating hours on its four Pratt and Whitney engines with a full maintenance history as per regulations, which included a major overhaul, it’s last, just three weeks before the accident was one of the oldest Boeing 747s in service and commanded an insurance valuation of only eleven million dollars.

The crew for flight TWA 800 arrived on-time and were presented with the aircraft without any documented problems or any operational abnormalities observed from the previous inbound sector. It was to be used for the first leg of a scheduled three-day trip for the four, highly experienced, flight crew or pilots. The Captain, aged fifty-eight years old, was an experienced pilot hired by TWA on May 20 1965 and had approximately eighteen thousand eight hundred total flight hours, including five thousand four hundred and ninety hours on the Boeing 747. Previously, he had flown the Convair 880 as a First Officer and the Boeing 707 and Lockheed 1011 aircraft as both a co-pilot and Captain for TWA, before transferring to the Boeing 747 aircraft as a co-pilot in 1990. He began his upgrade training to the rank of Captain on the Boeing 747, on May 21 1996 and his most recent flight test (annual proficiency check) in the simulator was successfully completed on June 19, 1996. As he was new to this position on the B747 and still undergoing regular line flying assessment, the co-pilot, sitting in the right-hand seat and also a captain was operating in the capacity of a check airman or trainer for the operating Captain. The Captain/Check Airman was aged fifty-seven years old and had been hired by TWA on April 13, 1964. He was also a very experienced pilot with approximately seventeen thousand total flight hours, including four thousand seven hundred hours on the Boeing 747. Previously, he had flown the Convair 880 as a co-pilot and then the Boeing 707 and Lockheed 1011 aircraft for TWA, before transferring to the Boeing 747 aircraft in 1974. The Boeing 747-100 classic aeroplane required a flight engineer and on TWA flight 800 this was a twenty-four years old trainee, with approximately two thousand five hundred and twenty total flight hours, who had only recently been hired by TWA on June 22, 1996. As this was only his sixth flight (about thirty flight hours) for the company and still undergoing initial operating experience training, a Flight Engineer Check Airman (trainer) was also assigned to this flight. He was aged sixty-two years old and hired by TWA on February 26, 1966 as a flight engineer and upgraded to a co-pilot position in 1967. His pilot experience also included the B747 as both a co-pilot and Captain from 1986 until 1993 when he reached sixty years of age (FAA regulations stipulate a mandatory retirement age of sixty for Captain and First Officer pilots). At this point, he became a flight engineer again on the B747 rather than retire, as flight engineers can work until they reach sixty-five years of age. He had approximately three thousand and forty-seven hours’ experience as a Flight Engineer, including two thousand three hundred and ninety-seven hours in this capacity on the B747.

In the subsequent investigation, the safety board found all the crew were legal and within the limits established by federal regulations.

The aircraft was refuelled at JFK in preparation for its scheduled departure time of 19:00 hours, Eastern Daylight Time, to Charles de Gaulle International Airport, (CDG) Paris, France. However, a delay to the flight’s departure ensued because a broken ground services vehicle blocked the aircraft on its gate for several minutes and ground agents overrun as they offloaded a bag they believed was unattended, although subsequently, before the aircraft departed, it was confirmed that the passenger had been on board the whole time. Eventually, TWA flight 800 closed its doors and pushed back from the gate at approximately 20:02 EDT. The aircraft’s engines were started without incident and the crew received their instructions from air traffic control (ATC) to begin their taxi to runway two-two right (22R). The weather conditions for the flight were good: with light winds, no turbulence reported and clear skies in evening dusk conditions, typical for this time of the day and year. At 20:17:18, ATC announced TWA 800 heavy caution wake turbulence from a 757, runway 22R, taxi into position and hold. The Captain/Check Airman acknowledged the ATC clearance and the aircraft entered the departure runway and held its position. At 20:18:21, ATC advised the pilots of TWA flight 800 that the wind was out of two hundred and forty degrees at eight knots and cleared them for take-off from runway 22R. The flight crew conducted their final before take-off checklist and carried out the take-off roll. The aircraft became airborne without incident at 20:19 EDT.

During the departure from JFK, the pilots initially received a series of increasing altitude assignments and heading changes from New York Terminal Radar Approach Control and later from Boston control (ARTCC), which handles the upper airspace around Long Island, New York. At 20:25:41, Boston ARTCC instructed TWA 800 to climb and maintain nineteen thousand feet and to expedite through fifteen thousand feet before moments later amending this clearance to maintain thirteen thousand feet only. At 20:27:47, TWA 800 levelled at this reassigned altitude and soon afterwards, at 20:29:15, the Captain stated, (recorded on the cockpit voice recorder (CVR)) Look at that crazy fuel flow indicator there on number four…(engine) see that? Then at 20:30:15, Boston ARTCC instructed, TWA 800 climb and maintain 15,000 feet and the Captain/Check Airman immediately acknowledged this clearance. The CVR recorded the Captain stating, Climb thrust (as an instruction to the flight engineer to advance the thrust levers/throttle to achieve the required power for the aircraft to climb). The Captain repeated this command ten seconds later and the flight engineer responded, Power set. The next thirty seconds of the CVR recording from the cockpit area microphone, CAM, which is mounted on the fuselage, inside the cockpit, and records audio sounds and vibrations from the aircraft, picked up the following sounds:

a sound similar to a mechanical movement in the cockpit (at 20:30:42)

an unintelligible word (at 20:31:03) and

Sounds similar to recording tape damage (at 20:31:05)

Subsequent examination of the CVR tape indicated that these sounds were likely the result of water damage, as this portion of the tape, just before the CVR stopped, was at an uncovered position on the reels and thereby exposed to the post-accident water.

The very last recorded sound on all the CVR channels was extremely loud, undistinguishable and lasted for only a fraction of a second (0.117 seconds) at 20:31:12 Eastern Daylight Time, on July 17 1996. The aircraft’s Flight Data Recorder (FDR) also lost power at the exact same moment.

Ergo, this was the very moment that TWA flight 800 was destroyed and all two hundred and thirty souls on board were lost.


Figure 1.1 Flight Path of Flight TWA 800

The aircraft’s transponder returns also vanished from Boston ARTCC radar at the same time, but this alone didn’t alarm the controller, as temporary losses, usually due to temporary errors or other system shortcomings, are not uncommon. However, at 21:31:50 EDT, when the Captain of an Eastwind Airlines B737 (call sign Stinger Bee Flight 507) reported that he "just saw an explosion out here then ten seconds later, …about 16,000 feet or something like that, it just went down into the water", the lost radar return became much more ominous and the haunting realisation, for the first time, fell upon the air traffic controller that a catastrophe had befallen TWA flight 800.

The National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) was initially notified at 20:50 Eastern Daylight Time. A full go team was assembled in Washington, DC and arrived on scene early the next morning. As is the case in such incidents, the NTSB assumed control of the aviation investigation with several other participants, including representatives from France’s Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la Sécurité de l’Aviation (BEA), as the flight was inbound to Paris, the US Federal Aviation Administration, (FAA), as the local civil aviation regulatory authority, Boeing Commercial Airplane Group, as the aircraft manufacturers, Pratt and Whitney, as the engine manufacturers, Honeywell, as the manufacturer of many of the aircraft systems and Trans World Airlines Inc. (TWA), as the airline involved. In addition, the United Kingdom’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch and Australia’s Bureau of Air Safety Investigations, participated in the entire investigation as observers, in accordance with the provisions of the Convention of International Civil Aviation, while selected parts where viewed by Canada’s Transport Safety Board, Singapore’s Civil Aviation Authority and Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee. Union bodies, including the International Association of Machinists Aerospace Workers, Flight Attendants (IAM), the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association also represented the interests of their members by maintaining a presence at relevant portions of the investigation.

Soon after the accident, the NTSB asked for financial assistance from TWA (five million dollars), Boeing (two million dollars) and Pratt and Whitney (one million dollars), as the nature of the recovery operation was expected to be both time consuming and very difficult. In fact, the investigation lasted over four years and became one of the most expensive of all time.

Almost immediately after the crash, a large search and rescue operation began. The vast number of official agency personnel, from the US Coast Guard, US Navy, New York Air National Guard, New York State Army National Guard, New York State Division of State Police, New York City Police and Fire Departments, Suffolk County Police and Sheriff’s Departments, Medical Examiner, Nassau County Police Department and the East Moriches Fire Department were swelled with spontaneous civilian volunteers. Between them, they manned a flotilla of private, military, police and coast guard boats supported by six coastguard helicopters, a falcon je, and US Navy C-130 Hercules and P-3 Orion aircraft. The US Coast Guard station (USCG) at East Moriches, New York, due to the proximately of its Moriches Inlet as the closest shoreline access to the accident site in the Atlantic Ocean, eight miles offshore from Long Island, New York, became the operation’s staging and co-coordination hub. However, when it soon became clear that there couldn’t be any survivors, their ‘search and rescue’ effort was quickly reclassified a ‘search and recovery’ operation. In the first twenty-four hours alone, the bodies of ninety-nine occupants of TWA flight 800 where recovered from the ocean surface and brought ashore to the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s temporary morgue. Most were quickly identified by dental and fingerprint records, but some required more detailed DNA or forensic tests before they could be released to their loved ones.

As the discovery of human remains subsided, the recovery priority turned to the wreckage and although most of the aeroplane would be found later on the ocean floor, a number of important pieces, some quite large such as the right wingtip, were found floating on the surface in or near fuel-fed fire areas. Quickly it became apparent that the analysis of the wreckage area, i.e., where different parts of the aircraft were found, would be very important for the investigators in determining how the aircraft broke up. Therefore, every piece of wreckage or debris and the location where it was found, was carefully tagged, numbered and catalogued for future reference.

The NTSB immediately requested the US Navy’s assistance in the underwater search and recovery of the ‘black box’ recorders, victims’ remains and aircraft wreckage. The NTSB had a memorandum of understanding with the US Navy regarding wreckage recovery for many years and had requested their assistance during several previous investigations. A few days later, on July 21, the US Navy’s explosive disposal and mobile diving units of the Atlantic Fleet arrived to take up this challenge. Their scuba divers, surface personnel, equipment and logistical support significantly bolstered the initial response scuba divers from the state and local police departments, who had been on site since the evening of the crash. Soon they discovered the two ‘black box’ recorders, one Cockpit Voice Recorder, CVR, (a four-channel, audiotape of the cockpit) and one Flight Data Recorder, FDR, (which recorded computer derived information from nineteen different aircraft parameters, including airspeed, altitude, power settings etc.) and successfully brought to them to the surface where they were taken on board the USS Grasp in the late hours of July 24, 1996. Immediately, they were packed in water to preserve the tapes and shipped to the NTSB’s laboratory in Washington DC to be deciphered. As is usually the case, the information gained from the recorders was vital to the investigators.

The relatively small Moriches station quickly became logistically unsuitable for the increasing amount of wreckage brought ashore. Therefore, the operation was switched to the larger and better equipped USCG Shinnecock Inlet base station. From here, the recovered aeroplane wreckage and debris were loaded onto trucks and transported to a leased hangar at the former Grumman Aircraft facility in Calverton, New York, where it joined other pieces of debris, which continued to be flown ashore directly from ships involved with the recovery operation. Upon arrival at Calverton, investigators worked tirelessly to identify all the pieces of wreckage.

By the end of July, two additional US Navy salvage ships had reported to the accident site to act as ocean-based stations for the ongoing scuba diving and remote operated vehicle (ROV) operations. With the US Navy’s hardware now fully in place, their search and recovery operation developed into the following three phases: 1) a period of intense activity, from July 17 to the end of August 1996; (2) a period of sustained effort, from September 1 to November 2, 1996, during which most of the remaining victims’ bodies were discovered by US Navy and local police divers and (3) trawling operations of the sea bed, from November 4, 1996 till April 28, 1997, during which substantial wreckage was brought ashore and all but one of the outstanding victim’s remains were recovered.

Figure 1.2 Wreckage recovery operation

When successive trawling runs failed to retrieve any wreckage or debris, a final inspection was undertaken by a US Navy ROV, between April 30 and May 18 1997, which confirmed no unrecovered wreckage remained on the sea bed. Consequently, with the agreement of the National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI, ten months of intensive search and recovery operations, which had recovered over ninety-five percent of the aeroplane, mostly from trawling the ocean floor, was formally terminated on May 18, 1997. Ironically, just four days later on May 22, 1997 and nearly a year after the crash, the last unaccounted soul was retrieved inadvertently by a fishing trawler.

The focus now turned towards the Calverton Hanger, where investigators expanded the catalogue system, introduced in the early hours of the recovery operation, to identify and classify with red, yellow and green designations, three distinct, west to east, debris fields (See Figure 1.1), where different sections of the aeroplane, given the same corresponding colour classifications were recovered.

Figure 1.3 Aircraft colour-coded sections to indicate their corresponding debris fields

The red, and largest of the three debris zones, was located closest to JFK Airport (farthest west) and contained debris that had practically disintegrated, from the aft end of the forward cargo compartment to the forward end of the wing centre section. We shall refer to this area as ‘the forward section of the central fuselage’. These pieces of wreckage exhibited no or very little, compared to pieces recovered from the yellow and green zones, crushing damage caused by the impact with the ocean and none contained significant soot deposits or any other evidence of exposure to fire.

The yellow zone was contained within the red zone, on its north-eastern side, and was the smallest of the three. This zone contained relatively large pieces of nearly all the forward fuselage, which exhibited some sea impact damage but no evidence of soot deposits, fire or heat damage. Also, no evidence of any foreign-object impact with the cockpit window was discovered.

The green debris zone was the farthest east from JFK Airport and the other zones. Most of the aircraft wreckage was recovered from this zone and included the aft and centre fuselage, the majority of both wings, which were found broken but in rather large pieces, all four engines which had separated from the wings, and most of the wing centre section including the centre fuel tank, also known as the centre (wing) fuel tank (see Figure 1.5), which would become a very important piece of evidence as the investigation developed. Examination of the green zone wreckage found some pieces exhibited heavy soot deposits with fire and heat damage. This was particularly severe on a right-sided section of the fuselage, which despite the force experienced had remained attached to the inboard section and the top surface of the right-wing and the fuselage around the third cabin door (R3 door) located over the right-wing. This cabin door had in fact separated from the fuselage and as a consequence exhibited soot deposits on both its inside and outside surfaces with areas of melted-through aluminium.

The investigation team decided to reconstruct, in the Calverton hanger, a ninety-three-foot-long three-dimensional centre section of the aircraft’s fuselage, which incorporated the wing centre section including the centre (wing) fuel tank, from the ‘green zone’ and the forward ‘red zone’ section. According to Boeing, the wing centre section supports and carries the wing’s bending forces during the flight and the keel beam, which is attached to the wing centre section and provides longitudinal strength to the aeroplane. The centre (wing) fuel tank occupies most of the wing centre section, which is situated below the cabin floor in between the wings and above the air conditioning equipment. This reconstruction took ten months and approximately ten thousand staff hours to complete. It proved very enlightening to the investigators, especially metallurgical experts, who were able to evaluate different pieces of wreckage in situ against fire effects, namely soot deposits on surfaces, stress lines, as well as fractures and associated deformations to determine how the pieces on each side of a fracture were moving relative to each other as the fracture occurred.

Figure 1.4 Reconstructed Fuselage

The NTSB investigators took these findings, along with studies of the wreckage recovery zones, known winds, flight data recorder information and the weight and aerodynamic characteristics of selected pieces of wreckage to create a time-step simulation on their ‘Breakup’ computer program to extrapolate the likely timing each piece of wreckage or debris detached from the aircraft. They then produced a ‘trajectory/flight path study’ of the post break up period, to map the motion of each detached piece of wreckage during its subsequent descent to the sea and this allowed them to formulate and consider several possible break up scenarios. Eventually they settled on a sequence, whereby the forward section of central fuselage, recovered from the red zone, departed the aircraft in the first few seconds, followed shortly afterwards by the separation of the forward fuselage, which was ‘pushed off’ and came to rest in the yellow zone, whilst the remaining crippled aircraft, which included the majority of the central wing section, the wings and the aft fuselage continued under its momentum on its original flight path for approximately forty seconds, until it nosedived into the green zone. These trajectory and sequence study results were supported by ATC radar data.

The crucial determining factor of this sequence was that the forward section of the central fuselage (red zone) departed the aircraft’s main body first. As such, the investigators became focused on this area and a more detailed and specific re-examination of its tiny pieces of debris discovered that some pieces exhibited possible characteristics of a dispersal pattern from an adjacent explosive blast.

This was a major breakthrough and spawned the working hypothesis:

‘The initial breakup could have been caused by some sort of explosive overpressure occurrence that emanated from the aeroplane’s central area.’

But to prove this catastrophic break-up theory, the investigators needed to determine the exact nature of the explosive overpressure event!

One clue was the loud noise recorded on the last few tenths of a second of the cockpit voice recorder (CVR). This sound was similar to CVR recordings from other aircraft that had experienced structural break-ups in-flight due to decompressions or explosions and drawing on these previous events, the investigators considered several possible causes of TWA 800’s in-flight explosive (overpressure) break-up before they narrowed it to just three working theories:

Structural failure and decompression

A terrorist attack using an explosive device, such as an on-board bomb or a missile warhead impacting the aircraft

Fuel/air explosion in the centre (wing) fuel tank (CWT).

In considering a structural failure and decompression, which can be considered an overpressure event of the aircraft’s airframe, the NTSB investigators looked at several different structural scenarios. Firstly, they examined the general fuselage and airframe for evidence of any failures. For this exercise, they again used the reconstructed fuselage in the Calverton hanger and although some small fatigue cracks were found in a few parts of the aircraft, including the wing centre section, none had coalesced into a propagating crack that could have led to the in-flight break-up. Next, they looked at the theory promoted by the dispersal pattern of the aircraft, that the in-flight breakup could have been the result of the forward cargo door separating from the fuselage in-flight, creating a severe decompression. But with no indication of any pre-impact failure to the hinge at the top of the forward cargo door and the door itself exhibiting severe crushing, fracture patterns, deformation and fragmentation, very similar to damage observed on the adjacent fuselage structure, this evidence indicated that the forward cargo door was closed and locked at the time it impacted into the sea. Thirdly, they investigated an engine failure, whereby hot engine parts, fragmented and were shot out and penetrated a fuel tank, especially the centre (wing) fuel tank (CWT), causing a catastrophic mid-air explosion. But also, here the investigators found no evidence of engine failure or pre-impact (with the sea) damage to the engines. This was supported by the flight data recorder, which showed no abnormalities in the four engine’s readings prior to the in-flight break-up.

Therefore, the NTSB concluded that the in-flight breakup of TWA flight 800 was not the result of a structural failure and decompression initiated by a pre-existing condition, such as fatigue, corrosion or mechanical fault.

Witnesses in the area totalled seven hundred and thirty-six on land, sea and in the air. Six hundred and seventy of them reported seeing something that was determined as probably being related to the accident, two hundred and thirty-nine were sound witnesses, one hundred and seventy-nine were sight and sound witnesses, two hundred and fifty-eight saw a ‘streak of light’ and five hundred and ninety-nine were ‘fireball’ witnesses. Of the fireball witnesses, two hundred and sixty-four reported seeing the fireball originate, two hundred reported seeing the fireball split into two fireballs and two hundred and seventeen reported observing the fireball hit the surface of the water or disappear below the horizon. Their accounts combined provided an image detail of a streak of light and explosion accompanied by a fireball, which split into two over the ocean and then observed debris, some of which was burning, descend towards the horizon and fell into the sea.

These witness accounts, the sudden and catastrophic nature of the in-flight break up, a background of heightened safety and security concerns surrounding the ongoing Olympic Games being held in Atlanta, Georgia, the fact that TWA flight 800 was an international flight and a radical group’s faxed letter to a London-based Arab newspaper only hours before the explosion, threatening an immediate act and ongoing violence against the United States until America withdrew all its troops from Saudi Arabia, all combined to generate immense speculation, circulated by the media the very same evening, that the downing of flight TWA 800 was probably caused by a terrorist attack using either a bomb or missile strike. This also became the investigators’ second working theory.

Senator Orlin Hatch, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it looked ’pretty darn conclusive, that either a bomb or a missile brought down the plane.’ A view also believed to be held by James Kallstrom, at the time, Assistant Director of the FBI’s New York office.

However, the Clinton administration confirmed that neither they nor TWA received any specific threats of terrorism prior to the incident and subsequent calls after the accident, claiming responsibility, were quickly written off as ‘hoax’s’. Nevertheless, suspicion remained and a criminal terrorist investigation under the control of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was set up, separate to the National Transport and Safety Board (NTSB) investigation to assess and evaluate any likelihood of a possible terrorist involvement, in particular, the use of either a bomb or missile attack on flight 800. The FBI was supported in this criminal investigation, at their own request, by The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as well as numerous military and civilian specialist organisations.

‘This was a bomb on board, without a doubt…You do not get these kinds of catastrophic mid-air explosions in airliners without an explosion on board,’ terrorism expert Larry Johnson said at the time.

Indeed, the fact that the aeroplane broke up in a similar manner as the bombed Pan AM B747 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, namely the forward part of both fuselages (Pan AM and TWA) were blown off intact, along with early analysis that found trace amounts of explosive residue on three separate pieces of TWA 800 wreckage, seemed to support this claim and prompted the FBI team to consider, as a priority, the possibility of an on board bomb.

Central to this line of inquiry were fire and explosive experts, brought in to find corroborating evidence, principally, typical bomb damage characteristics such as hot particle penetration, pitting, a high degree of fragmentation or hot gas erosion of metal. These characteristics had to be present in the recovered wreckage, at least in part, for the

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