25 Years Since TWA 800: What Happened?

Today marks 25 years since the third-deadliest accident in aviation history. On July 17th, 1996, a TWA Boeing 747-131 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean 12 minutes after taking off from New York JFK, causing fatalities to all 230 people on board.

TWA 747
The summer 1996 accident rocked the aviation industry. Photo: Aldo Bidini via Wikimedia Commons

Bound for Europe

Flight 800 was on its way to Rome, Italy, with a stop in Paris, France. However, the aircraft, registration N93119, would crash into the New York Bight, near East Moriches, Suffolk Country. 212 passengers and 18 crew members were flying at the time.

Initially, many thought that terrorists were behind the explosion. Several thought a bomb was on the aircraft, while some others thought there was a missile attack.

TWA 747 Jet
The Boeing 747 unit was in action for nearly 25 years when the explosion happened, having performed its first flight in August 1971. Photo: Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons

The investigation

Nonetheless, after four years of investigation with millions of dollars of backing, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) came to a conclusion. The group shared that exposed wiring sparked an explosion in the center wing fuel tank.

“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,” a 2000 NTSB Aircraft Accident Report states.

“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.”

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The NTSB adds that contributing factors involve 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.” Notably, there was no way to cut down the heat transferred into the center wing fuel tank or to “render the fuel vapor in the tank nonflammable.”

TWA 800 Getty
The NTSB has since used the reconstructed wreckage of the incident for training. Photo: Getty Images

The wider impact

TWA 800 had a broader influence on the aviation industry in subsequent years. For instance, the NTSB now issues safety recommendations that impact the way plans are designed. Moreover, there is a now greater understanding between the organization and the FBI when it comes to aircraft accident investigations.

Half a decade after the accident, TWA entered severe financial difficulty once again and was acquired by American Airlines. However, following the ongoing conditions after 9/11 many former employees of the veteran airline were let go. Therefore, the airline’s 70-year history ultimately came to an end at the turn of the millennium. Altogether, the latter years of the legacy carrier are marked by such a tragic disaster in the aviation industry.

What are your thoughts about what happened on TWA Flight 800? Let us know what you think of the tragic incident in the comment section.