NTSB Reopens Some Cases but Likely Won't for TWA Flight 800 Conspiracy Theorists

WASHINGTON ( TheStreet) -- TWA Flight 800 conspiracy theorists will likely be disappointed in seeking a rehearing before the National Transportation Safety Board, experts said, even though the board has re-opened investigations in the past.

Conspiracy theorists including a former NTSB investigator last week requested the board to reopen its investigation of the 1996 crash that plunged into the ocean 13 minutes after its departure, killing all 230 aboard.

The NTSB concluded, after a four-year investigation, that the cause was an explosion of flammable fuel vapors in the center fuel tank, apparently triggered by a spark from a short-circuit in the wiring. Theorists believe that a missile or missiles struck the plane and that the government has covered it up for the past 17 years.

"Because it's an official request, the NTSB will have to do some work, particularly on the radar, to see if that makes any material difference," said John Goglia, a two-term NTSB board member from 1995 to 2004 and now aviation safety blogger for Forbes.com. "But I don't think, from what I've seen, that they've made the threshold."

Goglia noted that the group's radar analysis shows that the track of the Boeing 747 is "about a mile different" from the NTSB model, "but the threshold (to reopen) is a bit high." He said new eyewitness testimony is unlikely to be much of a factor.

Peter Goelz, NTSB's managing director from 1995 to 2001, agreed that re-opening the investigation is unlikely. "It's not enough just to disagree with the analysis," he said. "Everybody does that. Lawyers disagreed with us all the time. There has to be some new evidence and there is no new evidence.

"They disagree with our analysis of the radar data and they have new eyewitnesses," he said. "Fine, but neither one is sufficient to reopen the investigation."

NTSB spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the board is currently reviewing the petition. "The parties to the investigation have 90 days (from submission) to review it and to offer comments" before the board makes a decision, she said.

The NTSB has reopened or revised its findings in at least four investigations in the past two decades. One was the investigation into the 1994 crash of an American Eagle ATR-72 near Roselawn, Ind., which killed 68 people including four crew members. The board's report, issued in 1996, said the likely cause was a loss of control resulting from an ice buildup on the wings. The agency blamed manufacturer ATR, the Federal Aviation Administration and the French Directorate General for Civil Aviation, the FAA equivalent, for failure to disclose previous de-icing problems or to take sufficient corrective action. Sales of the ATR-72 diminished substantially.

The French did not like the ruling. In 1996, the DGAC petitioned for reconsideration. The petition was backed by the FAA and ATR and opposed by the Air Line Pilots Association and American Eagle, an affiliate of American Airlines ( AAMRQ.PK). The conflict typifies the robust NTSB process, in which stakeholders can offer conflicting views and the board seeks an accurate consensus.

On the basis of this review, in 2002, the Safety Board made changes in the wording of its findings. The effect was to slightly diminish the level of fault of ATR and the DGCA. For instance, the board changed wording in a discussion of how ATR had known previously how icing would impact behavior of the ailerons, hinged flight control surfaces on the wing. Rather than saying that ATR "recognized the reason for the aileron behavior" the board said ATR ought to have recognized the reason. Additionally, rather than saying that a previously-issued ATR weather bulletin was "misleading," it said the brochure "did not adequately communicate the known catastrophic potential of ATR operations in freezing rain." Goglia was one of five board members to sign off on the changes.

Additionally, when it concluded in 1999 that the 1994 crash of US Airways ( LCC) Flight 427 near Pittsburgh, which killed 132 people, was due to a rudder malfunction, the board amended its findings to include rudder malfunctions as the cause of two earlier Boeing ( BA) 737 incidents - the 1991 crash of United ( UAL) Flight 585 in Colorado Springs and a1996 incident involving Eastwind Airlines Flight 517.

In 2000, the NTSB revised its findings in the case of the 1996 collision of a United Express Beechcraft 1900 with a Beechcraft King Air A90 at the Quincy, Ill. Airport. Fourteen people were killed, some because they could not get off the 1900 before a fire erupted. "The finding was that the main entrance door had the propensity to jam," Goglia said. "That was wrong. I brought it back and said 'we are wrong," and that forced them to change." Raytheon, the owner of Beech, also wanted the case reopened.

In its revisions, the board said it found that "its reevaluation of the factual evidence from this accident did not conclusively determine that the air stair door had jammed." Therefore, in the probable cause section, the most important, the board altered a finding that a contributor to the loss was "the failure of the air star door on the Beech 1900C to open." The new language said a contributor to the loss of life was "the failure of the air stair door on the Beech 1900C to be opened."

In 2006, the NTSB reopened a case involving a 1967 Piedmont Airlines Boeing 727 and a Cessna 310 near Hendersonville, N.C., at the urging of amateur historian Paul Houle. Houle believed the NTSB mistakenly blamed the Cessna pilot because the agency's lead investigator was the brother of Piedmont vice president Zeke Saunders. US Airways, which had merged with Piedmont, opposed the reopening.

In 2007, following a 14-month investigation, the NTSB declined to change its findings because its review indicated that the Cessna pilot had flown off course.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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