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TWA Flight 800

The Story of TWA Flight 800 Crash

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On July 17, 1996, minutes after taking off from New York’s Kennedy International Airport, a Boeing 747 bound for Paris exploded in midair over the Atlantic Ocean off the shore of Long Island, killing all 230 onboard. The four-year investigation into what caused Trans World Airlines Flight 800 to crash was the longest in the National Transportation Safety Board’s history, costing $40 million.

As per The New York Times, the aircraft took off at 8:19 p.m. in humid but “pretty clear” weather, before breaking apart 12 minutes later in a spectacular explosion.  212 passengers and 18 crew members were killed, including 16 pupils and five chaperones from Montoursville Area High School’s French Club in Pennsylvania.

Witnesses in the accident location described witnessing an explosion in the night sky followed by a rain of burning debris. Almost immediately, suspicion began that TWA Flight 800 was the target of a terrorist assault, with several claiming to have seen what looked to be a missile flying toward the airliner just before it exploded.

Although the source of the explosion was never identified, the inquiry determined that the accident was not the result of a terrorist assault, but rather an electrical breakdown that ignited a virtually empty center wing fuel tank in the aircraft. The accident is still one of the worst in American aviation history.

Inquiry Into TWA Flight 800 Crash

The 170-ton jet’s almost complete wreckage was retrieved from the ocean bottom and rebuilt as part of the subsequent inquiry. Following the NTSB’s decision, the aircraft was used to teach plane accident investigators, and relatives of the deceased were permitted to visit, but it was never exposed to the public. For historical purposes, a three-dimensional scan of the reconstruction will be produced.

John Purvis, then Boeing Company’s head of the accident investigation unit, says airplane explosions are rare due to equipment improvement and security measures.

According to Oakley, the inquiry into Flight 800 took so long because of a few reasons. To begin, the time required to separate the circumstances around a very unusual event—the central fuel tank explosion—which, he says, had never happened before on a 747. Additionally, investigators exercised additional caution in response to “extensive pressure from many quarters to ensure this was not the product of a terrorist attack or an errant missile launched by our or another nation’s military.”

New Guidelines for Safety

According to a commercial aviation historian, Shea Oakley, the twenty-five years after the terrible Flight 800 disaster have been the safest in the history of commercial flying in the United States.

According to him, deadly accidents often occur when an aircraft is flown into extreme weather, either a thunderstorm or, more rarely, severe clear air turbulence (CAT).

The National Transportation Safety Board made numerous safety recommendations after the release of its final report on the accident, including regular maintenance programs and fuel tank design requirements.

The Persistence of Conspiracy Theories

Despite the safety board’s official conclusions, conspiracy theorists have maintained for two decades that Flight 800 was brought down by a terrorist attack, bombing, or even friendly fire, backed by eyewitness reports claiming a missile strike.

Purvis asserts that the safety board’s report addressed the missile concept and found no evidence supporting the terrorist attack claim.

According to Oakley, the sequence of the blast, a rapid change in gravity and continued forward momentum that resulted in a steep brief rise, and the plane’s vertical plunge and fiery descent might have seemed to be the consequence of an assault.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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