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TWA probe exposes questions of empty fuel tank safety


NTSB proposal calls for measures to guard against explosions

November 15, 1996
Web posted at: 5:15 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Christine Negroni

NEW YORK (CNN) -- The investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800 is leading some National Transportation Safety Board investigators to call for new measures guarding against potential fuel tank explosions, CNN has learned.

Even though the cause of the TWA flight is still a mystery, some investigators say it may be possible to prevent similar disasters in the future.

The idea revives a 25-year-old debate about how to prevent explosions in fuel tanks. Airlines commonly fly with empty or nearly empty fuel tanks that under certain circumstances can become explosive.


The NTSB has created a draft proposal to address what one investigator calls "the possibility of aircraft blowing up in flight."

The draft recommends that steps be taken to reduce the combustibility of jet fuel fumes in these tanks, CNN has learned.

It's a safety problem which may involve thousands of commercial aircraft built by a number of manufacturers.

As many airplanes do, investigators say TWA Flight 800 took off with only 50 to 100 gallons of fuel in its center tank. They say fumes in the tank were heated to above the temperature at which they become explosive, dooming the 747. What's not known is why the center fuel tank exploded.

Other deadly crashes cited in the proposal are the crash of a Philippine Airlines 737 in 1990 in which eight people died and the crash of a 1989 727 that was blown out of the sky in Colombia by a bomb. Some investigators believe the Colombia bomb would not have brought down the plane had it not ignited an empty fuel tank.

crash site

"Empty fuel tanks have fumes on board, and when they explode they cause massive damage," said Michael Hynes, a former NTSB crash investigator.

Boeing acknowledges that fuel tanks can become highly volatile, but insists they're safe because they're isolated from anything that could ignite them.

The current fuel system design emerged from discussions among federal agencies and aircraft manufacturers in the 1970s. Yet some experts doubt the solution is 100 percent dependable.


"The problem with one in a billion is you don't know whether it's going to be the first time or the second time and then have 999 million uneventful flights," Hynes said. "Anything is possible."

One investigator familiar with the draft says the proposal takes into account that some terrorists know "a small bomb in the right place can initiate an explosion powerful enough to destroy an aircraft."

The fact that the proposal is being considered seems to bolster what one senior investigator on the TWA 800 team claims: No matter what the initial source of ignition, the volatile brew in the fuel tank all but guaranteed no one would survive the crash.


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