What Happened to TWA FLight 800?

Q: Could clear up my lingering doubts and suspicion concerning TWA Flight 800. I watched a newscaster express his intense skepticism that a 747 would blow up in mid-flight due to a mechanical problem. What do you think happened to Flight 800?

There has been an almost pathological refusal by many people to believe mechanical failure caused the explosion of the Boeing 747, which blew up near Long Island in the summer of 1996 on its way to Paris. But in my opinion that’s probably what happened. The airplane, an old 747-100, had been baking on a hot JFK tarmac up until departure, superheating the vapors in its empty center fuel cell (a 747 does not need a full complement of fuel to cross the Atlantic). There have been at least two other cases of exploding fuel tanks on planes that languished in the heat. One of these was a Thai Airways 737 that exploded at the gate in Bangkok, killing a flight attendant.

“…Intense skepticism that a 747 would blow up in mid-flight due to a mechanical problem.” Indeed, it’s not very likely. But neither is it impossible, and catastrophic mid-flight failures have occurred several times in the annals of commercial aviation.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.