US moves to boost aircraft fuel tank safety
Move may cost industry at least US$530m over several years: FAA

(WASHINGTON) US regulators said on Tuesday that they plan to order modifications on 3,800 commercial jets to reduce chances of a fuel tank explosion like the one that destroyed TWA Flight 800 in 1996.

"Our people have really brought us to a breakthrough on virtually eliminating fuel tank explosions on aircraft like the one that brought down TWA 800.'
- Marion Blakey, FAA administrator, holding a new fuel system that would prevent fuel tank explosions

The initiative, once dismissed as impractical and too expensive, could cost the industry at least US$530 million over several years, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

'Many people said it couldn't be done,' said FAA administrator Marion Blakey. 'Our people have really brought us to a breakthrough on virtually eliminating fuel tank explosions on aircraft like the one that brought down TWA 800.'

In that case, investigators concluded an electrical short ignited fuel vapours in the centre-wing tank of the older model Boeing 747. The plane exploded over the Atlantic off New York's Long Island, killing all 230 people aboard.

Ms Blakey said the FAA will propose a rule later this year requiring the industry to install a fuel tank safety device on new planes made by Airbus and Boeing Co and retrofit existing aircraft over a seven-year period.

The device is designed to reduce the threat of combustion by neutralising potentially volatile fuel-air mixtures in empty or emptying tanks. This is achieved by replacing oxygen with nitrogen-enriched air.

Certain models, like the Boeing 747 and 737 and the Airbus A320, will likely be modified first, regulators said. FAA plans follow years of piecemeal regulation aimed almost entirely at mitigating potential ignition sources like wiring.

'We've known throughout that we've needed to address fuel tank flammability itself and this has proven to be a greater challenge,' Ms Blakey said.

Boeing designed its system and conducted flight tests last summer and plans more next month. European-based Airbus has been further behind in developing its system.

Airbus spokesman David Venz said the manufacturer had no comment on the FAA's plans. 'We've been saying the same thing since TWA 800 - we have a completely different design from those tanks that have had problems.'

But following the lead of the French authorities, the FAA proposed in November that US airlines modify wiring on probes that measure fuel quantity on 468 Airbus A319 and A320 planes.

Boeing spokeswoman Liz Verdier said the manufacturer will not wait for new FAA regulation to become final before starting work.

'We're doing it anyway,' Ms Verdier said.

Boeing wants to roll out the first 747-400 with the fuel tank enhancement at the end of 2005 and plans to make retrofit kits available to airlines at the same time or soon after.

Major airlines were reluctant to comment ahead of the government's proposal.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the TWA 800 disaster, issued rare praise for the FAA but said it would also wait to see how much teeth the agency's regulation would have. - Reuters

February 22, 2004 - FAA Orders Fuel Tank Safety Systems On Jets

WASHINGTON (USA) -- Federal aviation officials Tuesday announced plans to require airplane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus to retrofit 3,800 aircraft with onboard systems to prevent fuel tank explosions such as the one thought to have downed a TWA jet in 1996.  In addition, newly manufactured jumbo jets, including the Boeing 737 and 747 and the Airbus A320 and A380, will be required to have the systems.

"We can close the book on center fuel tank explosions," Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Marion Blakey said Tuesday in making the announcement. Blakey said another accident similar to the TWA 800 crash that killed 230 people likely would happen if the government did not act. The agency's statistical risk analysis put the likely risk at four crashes in the next 25 years as a result of center fuel tank explosions.

The new systems, called inerting systems, would pump nitrogen-enriched air into aircraft fuel tanks, lowering the amount of oxygen in fuel vapors and reducing flammability.

"This is an elegantly simple system" developed by the FAA and tested last year, Blakey said. The agency estimates the cost to outfit one plane with the system at $140,000 to $220,000. The systems, which will add an additional 200 pounds to the weight of each plane, will cost the airlines about $14,000 per plane in additional fuel costs per year.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing is developing a similar system, based on the work done by the FAA, and already has agreed to install it in its new 737s, 747s and 777s. Airbus officials said there are no current-carrying wires or ignition sources in their fuel tanks so they are uncertain how the new requirement applies to their aircraft. But FAA's Blakey said the agency had done testing of Airbus center fuel tanks and found the risk of explosions caused by sparking wires or other ignition sources similar to the risk found in Boeing tanks. The FAA said the final rule with details on the precise type of system required will be issued later this year. That rule will set a deadline of seven years for retrofitting planes.

Meanwhile, the FAA has issued more than 60 directives to airlines and manufacturers requiring them to keep fuel in center tanks to make them less volatile and eliminate possible sources of ignition, including faulty wiring. The July 17, 1996, explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, New York, brought the issue of center fuel tank flammability to public attention. All 230 people onboard the aircraft died in the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board could not definitively determine the cause of the explosion but ruled out a bomb or missile attack. Investigators theorized that a

 combination of factors, including hot summer weather, a center fuel tank full of vapors and a spark from a wire running through the tank, likely caused the blast. Three other accidents also have been linked to center fuel tank explosions, including a March 2001 Thai Airways International explosion on a runway in Bangkok, Thailand, that was free of fatalities; a May 1990 Philippine Airlines explosion on the ground that caused the deaths of eight passengers; and a 1989 Avianca crash due to a bomb detonation in the cabin that led to a center fuel tank blast and the deaths of 107 people aboard.

When the safety board first recommended inerting systems on all aircraft, the FAA and the airline industry resisted, says such systems were impractical and too expensive. FAA engineer Ivor Thomas is credited with coming up with a lower-cost alternative. Thomas determined that hot air from jet engines could be cycled into empty center fuel tanks through a filter that would take oxygen out and keep nitrogen in, making the atmosphere inside the fuel tank inert -- or nonflammable. But he also determined that less nitrogen was needed to keep the tanks inert than previously had been thought, meaning a lighter, less expensive system could be used.

The Cold Hard Facts

The article below sounds plausible until you look at cold hard tech facts about flash points of JP-4 at various temperatures and altitudes and what you need to have in place before the scene is set for a TWA800 style disaster. Admittedly fuel-tank explosions are scarce (the author's main point) - but then again you DO need the six inflammatory confluences for a guaranteed non 3rd party explosion in a non-inerted tank (and that's why they're fortuitously rare):
 
a. High ambient temperatures (time of day / location)
 
b. CWT fuel Aircon-pack heated for a protracted period (not ground-cart airconditioned)
 
c.   Fuel with a low enough flash-point for the other qualifying conditions (fuel characteristics can vary significantly depending upon their uplift points).
 
d.  Low levels of fuel in centre wing tank affording no effective heat-sink for aircon  (i.e. only sufficient ullage to generate high levels of potentially explosive fuel vapour when heated) (low CWT fuel levels equate to a relatively short sector length).
 
e.  A spark of significant magnitude to generate a flame-front (i.e. not just "a spark") - requiring a high voltage current to be induced into tank internal wiring because of a HV wiring defect in the same bundle as an into-tank wire (and that fault not causing a CB to trip).
 
f.  A gap for that high voltage to jump (in TWA800 that was provided by the highly conductive silver sulfide deposits that had previously been allowed to build up on FQIS terminal blocks (terminal blocks having positive and negative terminals across which high amperage sparks can jump courtesy of those silver sulfide build-ups). These heavy deposits form due to a chemical alliance of the sulfur in fuel and the silver in silver-soldered crimp-connectors. Some constructions use nickel-plated lugs and connectors to avoid this. Without a spark-gap the induced high voltage would be harmless. An alternative incendiary source, thought to have been a factor in Bangkok's 737, was the practice of leaving fuel boost pumps running dry for long periods in empty tanks. Not too long after the Bangkok explosion the FAA was forced to introduce hazard controls for fuel pu! mps exhibiting dangerous overheating defects. It's not clear exactly how long these flawed pumps had been in service before FAA action was taken.
     
g.  For any spark generated inside a tank to be a danger, it must occur above the level of any residual fuel. Below that level it would be fuel-quenched (Number 7 condition - for an explosion to be possible?)
 
h.  Any event must occur within the time constraints of factors a though c. (tank temps won't remain high once cruise altitude is reached and flash points for fuels are a function of both temperature and ambient atmospheric pressures). Flammability has its peaks and troughs.. (Condition #8??)
So once all the required pre-conditions for a fuel-tank explosion are examined, it is realised that the window of opportunity for a guaranteed "spontaneous" fuel-tank event is practically constrained by all the factors that MUST be satisfied simultaneously in order for an explosion to occur. Having all six (or 8?) things come together (and an explosion occur) is statistically possible - but always highly improbable. However the fact that it can happen, and has happened, is now understood and introducing a ninth factor (of inerting) should thereafter make it an impossibly high order of improbability. The only way to then generate an even higher order of safety would be to reduce the oxygen levels in the nitrogen-enriched air to a point below the planned 12% - by introducing added bottled gases or using a more efficient FR! S. That's not going to happen because the Boeing/FAA cost-benefit analysis said that that further enhanced level of safety would be like donning a scuba tank to take a bath. Like it or lump it, that's the way of the world in aviation lore. Bloodbuckets Lore says that "when practising bleeding, first ensure that the post-haemorrhage level of red corpuscles will be sufficient for ultimate survival". The airline industry cannot cope with all the cost-push threats to its existence, but what it is good at is reassurance. It is reassuring that very few airliners suffered fuel-tank explosions in the past but moreso that, after inerting, that those numbers should blow down out of all proportion to the other threats.
 
 
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WND Exclusive Commentary


The real reason behind FAA fuel-tank ruling


Posted: February 21, 2004
1:00 a.m. Eastern

 

 2004 WorldNetDaily.com

Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that the Federal Aviation Administration was about to order airlines to install a system to reduce the chance of fuel-tank explosions "like the one that downed a TWA Boeing 747 in 1996." The system would essentially remove explosive oxygen in the tanks and replace it with non-explosive or inert nitrogen gas.

"The FAA would have us believe that this is being done because of a spark of unknown origin in the fuel tank of TWA 800," observes retired United Airline pilot and veteran safety investigator Ray Lahr. "Since the advent of low volatility jet fuel, there has never been a fuel-tank explosion due to a spark, and that includes TWA 800." Lahr does, however, have an informed opinion as to what happened to TWA Flight 800 and why the government is just now moving ahead with this billion-dollar project.

Before reaching for their wallets, those investors paying the bills might want to talk to Lahr and other aviation professionals. They might want to review the history of such spontaneous explosions on commercial airlines. They might then want to ask the next logical question: At this late date what has inspired the FAA to act? To this question, Lahr and others have an answer, and it has nothing to do with the concocted explanation for TWA 800's demise.

The case of TWA Flight 800 is well enough known. On the night of July 17, 1996 Iraq's national liberation day hundreds if not thousands of people on Long Island's south shore watched as an unknown object streaked up from the horizon and arced over toward TWA Flight 800 in the seconds before it exploded. Two-hundred seventy would provide the FBI with specific accounts of this streaking object.

At that exact same moment, FAA radar operators out of New York picked up an unknown object on their radar screens "merging with TWA Flight 800." Indeed, when Ron Schleede of the National Transportation Safety Board first saw the radar data, he exclaimed, "Holy C-----, this looks bad." He added later, "It showed this track that suggested something fast made the turn and took the airplane."

Four years after the crash NTSB officials came up with their own unverifiable explanation. According to the NTSB, at the very moment that these hundreds of eyewitness and FAA technicians were witnessing what appeared to be a missile attack, the airliner self-destructed in mid-air because of a center wing tank problem, the first such event in the 75 year history of commercial aviation.

Jump ahead to Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2001. On that day, an international panel of some 70 airline industry executives and federal officials rejected suggestions that U.S. airlines use an inerting process to prevent explosions like the one alleged to have destroyed TWA Flight 800.

The panel of aviation professionals told the FAA that the process was too costly for commercial use. They contended that the odds against a future fuel-tank explosion were far too great to justify the price tag. The unspoken implication, however, was that the odds were too great for a fuel tank to have blown this way, including TWA 800's.

If the panelists had believed that a given 747 could self-destruct because of a fixable problem, they would have fixed those problems in a heartbeat. To reject the FAA's recommendation, the panel had to ignore not only the NTSB's judgment on TWA 800, but also its judgment on other alleged fuel-tank disasters in the past.

There were not many of them. Until the Flight 800 tragedy, the only listed "fuel-tank explosion" in the 80-year history of airline disasters was a Philippine Airlines 737 that blew while the plane was backing out of a Manila airport gate in May of 1990. And even this case was suspect.

The problems with the case began with its location, the benighted city of Manila, an international cesspool of Islamic terrorism and the home base of, among others, Ramzi Yousef. Yousef was the mastermind of the original World Trade Center bombing and the creator of the Bojinka plot, a plan to blow up 11 American jumbo jets in one day. More than just a schemer, Yousef was responsible for the bombing of Philippine Airlines Flight 434 on Dec. 11, 1994. Any explosion in Manila's airport would raise suspicion as to its origins, especially if it were the only explosion of its kind in the history of aviation.

A second problem with the Philippine Airlines explosion was the nature of the damage. Reportedly, the explosion blew the entire top of the center wing tank violently upwards. The upward blast in the case of TWA Flight 800 was clearly a localized event limited to a specific area at the right side of the center wing tank, concentrated between span wise beams 2 and 3. The Philippine 737 may have blown up on its own, but if it did, it shed no light on the fate of TWA Flight 800.

When the aforementioned panel met in August 2001, it had another case to consider. A Thai Airways Boeing 737 that had exploded on the tarmac in Bangkok on March 3, 2001. This too was ruled a center wing tank explosion, but the panel had good reason to be suspicious.

The Associated Press report on the day of the Thai explosion was admirably straightforward. "A passenger jet Thailand's prime minister was to board exploded and went up in flames 35 minutes before its scheduled departure Saturday," noted the AP. Apparently, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was on his way to the Bangkok International Airport when the plane blew up on the runway. "Thailand has a history of coups and violent overthrows of governments," the AP reported. "The explosion came two days after Thaksin gave Thailand's Constitutional Court 21 boxes of documents as part of his defense against a corruption indictment that could evict him from office."

According to the AP, the Thai Airways president had said that there was "a loud noise that sounded like an explosion" before the fire started. The AP paraphrased the plane's captain as saying, "It was impossible for the plane to explode from an internal malfunction if the engines had not yet been started. The fully loaded fuel tanks, located in the plane's wings, were intact ... indicating that burning fuel was not the cause of the explosion."

The New York Times was even more specific: "Minutes before Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was to board a Thai Airways jet this weekend, an explosion from beneath his assigned seat blew apart the plane."

On March 5, CNN added more telling details. One was that the "the blast ripped through the floor and ceiling," a likely sign of a bomb in the passenger section. The second was the identification by Thailand's defense minister of the composition of the bomb as "definitely C-4."

Nor was this the first time that a Thai plane had blown up. On Oct. 29, 1986, explosives planted in a lavatory of a Thai International Airways jet sent the plane plunging 21,000 feet before the plane could make an emergency landing. The plane was on its way to Osaka after a stop where else? in Manila.

But the investigation in March 2001 followed a pattern not available 15 years earlier. This time the explosive residue, like all other evidence of a bomb, disappeared in a hurry. On April 11, the NTSB issued a press release that reads like a crude parody of the TWA 800 investigation:

 

Physical evidence has been found that the center wing tank exploded. The accident [emphasis mine] occurred at 2:48 p.m. on a day with temperatures in the high 35 degree Celsius [range]. The initial explosion of the center wing tank was followed 18 minutes later by an explosion in the right wing tank. Air conditioning packs, which are located directly beneath the center wing tank and generate heat when they are operating, had been running continuously since the airplane's previous flight, including about 40 minutes on the ground.

Note the apocryphal TWA 800 scenario now transposed to a 737 on a Thailand tarmac: the heat, the overactive air conditioning, the center wing tank explosion, even if this was a 737, not a 747, and only nine years old at that. The parody grows cruder still:

 

Although chemical traces of high-energy explosives were initially believed to be present, samples have been submitted to the FBI for confirmation by laboratory equipment that is more sensitive than equipment available in Thailand. Although a final report has not yet been issued, the FBI has found no evidence of high explosives in any of the samples tested to date.

How or why the NTSB and the FBI both got involved in a Thailand explosion was not at all clear. What was clear, however, was the dissembling. "Sensitive" equipment finds more explosive residue, not less. Once again the FBI made the explosive residue go away the only thing missing was the fabled careless cop spreading residue for a bomb-hunting dog. Again, the NTSB imposed its patented center wing tank scenario, this time not in four years but in four weeks. Again, a 40-minute layover on a 95-degree day was made to seem unusually perilous. Again, the explanation held off the media.

The New York Times headlined only its second piece on the Thai Airways crash, "A Similarity Is Seen In 2 Plane Explosions." The headline infers both the NTSB strategy and the Times' passivity.

CNN did no better. "Investigators are also looking at any role heat-generating air conditioning units may have played in the Thai blast," observed CNN's online service after the NTSB changed its story. CNN noted that these units were also a "contributing factor" in the explosion of TWA 800.

That no member of the major media expressed even the faintest bit of skepticism reveals all too much about the state of American journalism. It was, of course, possible that the Thai Airways explosion did occur by accident; it was just not likely. Clearly, the panel of aviation experts gave it and TWA 800 little credence.

The American involvement in the Thai case was too quick and expedient. Still unable to identify an ignition source for TWA 800, the NTSB needed a parallel explosion to justify its miscellaneous rulings on that doomed flight. As to the Thai prime minister, the one who was about to indict his buddies in a corruption scandal, the one who was about to board the plane, he would have welcomed an alternative explanation, one that would make him look less vulnerable and victimized.

Given the flimsy evidence for all three explosions, the question remains as to why now eight years after the destruction of TWA Flight 800 the FAA would go to such extraordinary and expensive lengths. To Ray Lahr, the answer is obvious: the legitimate fear of terrorist missiles. If September 11 did not shake up the FAA, the simultaneous double rocket attack a year later on an ascending Israeli airliner in Kenya most surely did.

"I wish they would be honest about the problem they are addressing," says Lahr. "They are not worried about a spark in the fuel tank because they know that is not what happened to TWA 800. They are worried about the thousands of missiles loose in this world. If a missile hits a fuel tank, a nitrogen blanket might help."


Related special offers:

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Jack Cashill is an Emmy-award winning independent writer and producer with a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue.

 

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