19.11.2018 in Analysis
Fire Safety Systems Evolution in Aviation


TWA Flight 800 Accident

On July the17th, 1996, the TWA flight 800 departed from New York JKF Airport en-route to Paris in France and at 8:31 pm, an explosion occurred that left the Boeing 747 jet damaged. Lives of 230 people were also lost during the explosion. Most of the victims were thrown into the Atlantic Ocean located off along the Long Island. As soon as the news about the explosion was spread various theories emerged concerning the real cause of the accident. Many explanations were given regarding the accident by people from different parts of the world. Some people claimed it was a terrorist bomb and the theory was believed by many people. Others suggested a possible mechanical failure. The possibility of an unprecedented mechanical failure is always there although the magnitude of the explosion raised doubts about it. This is because aircraft do not often explode in the air without any reason. The accident marked the third deadliest aircraft accident in the United States territory with all the 230 people onboard perishing.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) arrived at the scene of the accident the next morning to gather more information about the accident. It is believed that a terrorist attack could have been the cause of the accident. This prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to launch criminal investigations immediately regarding a possible terror attack resulting in the crash. After the close six month investigation, the FBI revealed that there was no enough evidence to claim that the accident had been due to acts of terror. The investigation case was later closed.

It took NTSB four years to investigate the root cause of the crash. The investigation process of TWA Flight 800 marked the most complex, costly, and extensive air accident investigation in the history of the United States. The board resolved that the most probable cause of the crash was the explosion of highly flammable air or fuel in the aircraft’s fuel tank. It was not possible to determine the certainty of the report fully. The most likely cause of the crash, on the other hand, is believed to be a short circuit. Due to the accident and subsequent investigations, the requirements were established for airplanes to prevent such disasters resulting from fuel tank explosions.

Aviation Fire Rates – Other Incidents

Safety in the aviation sector is a word that encompasses various aspects, such as categorization and classification of flight failures and thereafter establishing mechanisms that can be used to prevent such accidents. The prevention measures are carried out using various means like training, education, and regulation procedures. It is also important to inform the public and specifically the travelers about their safety in such environments. Safety regulations and mechanisms are aimed at stopping and preventing tragedies like aviation fires. Aviation fire rates have been reduced in the United States with the help of automated fire systems. Normally these prevention measures require testing. These tests are used to gauge the flammability of items and the toxicity of the smoke produced.

Using such measures has made the rates of aviation fires go down by a big margin over the past decades. Fire and smoke produced during aircraft crashes are the major causes of deaths. The smoke produced is highly toxic due to poisonous chemicals. In 1983, an electrical fire resulted in death of 23 out of 46 passengers on Air Canada Flight 797. This prompted the introduction of floor level lighting that assists passengers to evacuate from any smoke filled airplane. In the past years, aviation fires rates were higher compared to the modern times. In 1985, the fire on the runway resulted in the death of 55 people in the British Air tour Flight 28M. It is believed that around 48 of the people who perished suffered massive poisoning due to lethal toxic smoke and gas that emanated from the aircraft fuel tanks. This particular accident raised concerns about survivability of passengers in aircraft in case of a crash. Since then, the field has been studied broadly. Certainly, this kind of research has resulted in the reduced number of aviation fires witnessed currently.

Incursion of fire into fuselage and the arrangement of aircraft prevent passengers from being evacuated. Particular areas of the aircraft act as hindrances to their ability to escape. These include the forward galley area. Aviation fires have caused many deaths with most passengers dying while escaping near the exits. Cranfield Institute did a detailed research pertaining to the appropriate seating arrangement to curb the increased number of deaths caused by aviation fires. The institute looked at the best evacuation route for passengers. It led to the invention of the seating layout commonly known as ‘Overwing’ exit. This kind of layout was found appropriate for better control of disasters caused by aviation fires. Cranfield Institute also proposed the use of smoke hoods but that idea was later rejected as it was found counterproductive.

Other statistics regarding the aviation fires rates indicate the seriousness and damage caused by fires. South African Airways Flight 295, for instance, lost direction above the Indian Ocean in the year 1987. This was after an in-flight fire occurred around the cargo section. This led to the invention of mechanism for installing fire extinguishers in the cargo section to combat fire that might occur there. In the year 1996, ValuJet Flight 592 also crashed into Florida Everglades a few minutes after takeoff due to fire in the cargo hold. This resulted in the death of 110 people.

To fight accidents caused by fires in the aviation industry, it was suggested that fire fighting foam paths should be laid down before emergency landing. The practice was later considered marginally effective as it depleted the capability to fight fire when it occurred. This weakness made the United States FAA remove its recommendation in 1987.

The findings have established that the most common cause of fires in aircraft is wiring complications that entail intermittent faults. Such faults include: wires having breached insulation that touch each other, water that drips on the wires, and short circuits. These kinds of faults are difficult to detect while aircraft is on the ground. Sophisticated technologies like the spread-spectrum use have been employed recently to test wires on the airplane before flight.



Initial Investigation

National Transportation Safety Board started investigations immediately to establish the cause of the accident. NTSB was informed about the accident at around 8:50pm. An entire go-team was organized and assembled in Washington, D.C to deal with the crisis. The team arrived at the scene of the accident the next morning. Many initial witnesses described the possible cause of the accident as either a missile attack or a bomb. It is critical to note that the National Transportation Safety Board does not have the mandate to conduct criminal investigation. In the previous investigations, any suggestions of a possible criminal activity resulted in the intervention of the FBI to carry out investigations. The function of NTSB in that case was to provide relevant support that was required or requested by the instigating body. After TWA 800 accident, the FBI started a parallel criminal investigation that was carried out alongside NTSB’s accident investigation.

Initial searches and recovery operations were done by the state, federal and local agencies with the help of government contractors. Remote operated vehicles were used in the search and investigation of debris fields in the water. Wreckage and debris were excavated by scuba divers with the help of remote operated vehicles. The initial investigations were marked with confusion caused by the agencies. Controversial information regarding the accident was given by officials and agencies. NTSB chairman Robert Francis confirmed that the authority gave priority to the recovery of stuck bodies and that divers were used in the process when it was discovered that some victims were hidden underneath. Family members of the deceased became suspicious about the investigations and termed the investigators as untrue for withholding information.

Initial investigations of the tragedy resulted in pressure from all corners. Differences in cultures and agendas of the two investigating bodies (FBI and NTSB) resulted in strife. The FBI claimed that criminal activity was the cause of the accident. This demonstrated NTSB as irresolute. The FBI was frustrated at NTSB’s failure to comment on the possible cause of the accident.


Conspiracy theories related to the crash of TWA Flight 800 indicate that the causes of the accident were different from the ones articulated by the National Transportation and Safety Board. According to NTSB, the possible cause of the accident was the explosion of flammable air or fuel in the fuel tank due to a short circuit. The conspiracy theories indicate that the actual cause of the crash was the United States Navy missile test that had gone awry, possible terrorist missile attack or an onboard bomb. In the year 2013, a documentary was released that stated that the causes that NTSB had indicated as the causes of the crash were not the real ones. The documentary alleged that the investigation conducted by NTSB was a cover up. The documentary contains the statements of 6 members of the initial investigation team. The members although retired also filed a petition to have the probe reopened and investigated afresh.

While NTSB arrived at the scene of crash the following morning, witnesses claim that they saw a “streak of light” that was ascending to a point with a large fireball. Over the years, there has been a lot of public interest concerning the streak of light. Most people think that the mentioned streak of light was a missile attack that was directed to TWA 800 Flight and caused its explosion. Preliminary investigations and examinations of the wreckage indicated explosive residue in three samples of the airplane wreckage materials obtained from separate locations. The FBI described the materials as pieces of canvas-like elements and pieces of floor panel. Other samples were collected and taken to the FBI’s laboratory that is located in Washington, D.C. further investigation on the samples revealed the presence of elements that raised media attention. The FBI viewed the tests results as a possible indication of a terror attack. NTSB, on the other hand, was cautious and cited the absence of relevant patterns on the wreckage that could be used to term explosion as a possible cause of the crash.

The chief of TWA who also participated in the formal investigations indicated that he was convinced that the brown materials found on the passenger seats were suspicious and possibly indicate that there was an explosion. Further reports indicated that the reported reddish substance was consistent with suspicious rocket fuel from a possible missile attack on TWA 800. In his book entitled The Downing of TWA Flight 800, James Sanders (1997) claimed that the aircraft had been brought down by a missile attack and that the government covered up the story to avoid the panic. NTSB could not determine the exact source of the suspicious materials.

On the 7th November, 1996 Pierre Salinger proposed that the aircraft was shot down using friendly fire and the government covered up the incident. Salinger said that his claims were based on the report he had received from French intelligence personnel who had close contacts with the United States officials. On the 9th April, 1998, Elaine Scarry, a professor of the English Language and Literature at Harvard University proposed that the downing of the airplane was caused by strong electromagnetic interference. The high intensity of radiated fields emitted by the United States military personnel was the cause of the crash according to Elaine. Scarry, criticized the disorderly manner in which the investigations of the events that had occurred inside the airplane were conducted.

According to International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), destruction could have been caused by something that influenced the left side of the aircraft. The association also noted that CWT exploded due to breakup of the airplane but that was not the initial event. William Donaldson who is a retired Naval Officer published a report in 1998 in which he observed that the aircraft was struck by missiles that were fired from the water as a terrorist attack. He further claimed that the NTSB and the FBI conspired to cover this fact up due to immense political pressure. According to Donaldson, there has never been in-flight explosion in a Boeing airliner particularly of Jet-A kerosene vapor mixture in any tank due to mechanical problems. Donaldson proposed that debris field, eyewitnesses, victim injury evidence, and metallurgical were enough to conclude that a terrorist attack was a more compelling cause of the crash. He did not rule out the possibility of a friendly fire from the United States military.


According to interviews with the majority of the eye witnesses, a “streak of light” was seen ascending to a point where a huge fireball later appeared. Some witnesses also claimed that the firewall split into two portions as it descended into the ocean. A lot of speculation grew due to this claim. The public and the media developed immense interest in these revelations. Analysts claim that the streak of light could be attributed to a missile hurled at TWA 800 bringing it down after the explosion. The witnesses’ sentiments formed a critical basis for the FBI investigation of a possible criminal activity.

Around eighty FBI agents carried out interviews with witnesses every day. No actual verbatim records of the interviews were released to the general public. Instead, summarized reports of the incident were produced by the FBI agents to the public. The witnesses were not requested to review the summaries or correct them before release. The summaries also contained the drawings describing what the witnesses saw during the incident. Several days after the crash, NTSB announced it would form a witness group to carry out interviews. The FBI stepped in raising concerns over the inappropriateness of a non-governmental body carrying out investigations. Later the FBI attributed the difficulties during prosecutions to the presence of multiple interviews from the same source.

NTSB Conclusion

NTSB concluded that the downing of TWA flight 800 was not caused by a bomb or a missile attack. The fuel or vapor in the flight fuel tank was flammable at the time of accident and it was capable of producing sufficient pressure to break the tank apart. The observed streaks of light were not in any way related to a missile strike. Instead, they were burning fuel from the airplane at some point during post-explosion. What the witnesses claimed to see was burning wreckage falling from the airplane into the ocean. According to NTSB, breakup of TWA 800 flight was caused by fuel or air explosion at the center wing fuel tank.

TWA 800 Aftermath

Fire Safety Changes to Aviation

  • Aircraft design. Fire is a dangerous threat to any aircraft. Modern aircraft are protected from fire incidents using multiple fire protection systems. Some aircraft are designed to allow for installation of fire extinguishing equipment. Others are designed with a high degree of fire resistance. With fixed tools to fight fire included in the design of aircraft, permanent and reliable tools can be put to use easily. A complete firefighting system included in the design of aircraft includes a fire extinguishing system and a fire detection system. Various areas of the aircraft are designed to have these tools. Such areas include: engines and auxiliary compartments (APU), electronic bays, wheel wells, bleed air ducts and baggage and cargo compartments; other tools used in aircraft design include smoke detectors to monitor any materials burning slowly, carbon monoxide detector and chemical sampling tool used to detect combustible elements that result in accumulation of explosive gases in the aircraft.
  • Service requirements. On modern aircraft, fire protection systems do not necessarily rely on the crew members as the primary method of fire detection. Instead the systems are automatic which makes the service dependable and more reliable. Some of the service requirements include:
  1. No false warnings about a flight on ground condition.
  2. Fast indication of fire and detection of the location.
  3. Dependable and accurate indication that the fire has been put off.
  4. Resistance to damage caused by exposure to oil, vibration, water, extreme temperatures or handling.
  5. Circuitry that is co-joined with the aircraft power system without inverters.
  6. A cockpit light illumination indicating the exact location of fire using an alarm system.
  7. Separate fire detector for all engines.

The fire detection system serves its purpose by signaling the presence of fire. Several units of the system are installed in different places where there the danger of catching fire is high.

Nature of the Aircraft Environment

The environmental performance of aircraft has been improved. The standards, guidance, and policies have been developed to offer guidance in boosting the aircraft’s environment. Integrated measures are used to address aircraft noise or engine emission to embrace technological growth, proper management of air traffic, operating rules, suitable airport or land-use planning and application of market developed opinions. Firefighting foam paths are used during emergency landing. The use of time-domain spectrum for the detection of flaws and faults in the circuitry of an aircraft has been highly adopted to ensure a safe environment. In case of a fire, aviation fire fighter can help improve the aircraft’s environment by protecting the surrounding environment. A typical aircraft environment is heavily laden with protective systems and detection equipment.

FAA and ICAO Safety Coordination

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) help in stipulation of the accepted code of conduct in an airport environment. Their rules and regulations cover general aviation and airport and runway safety. They also cover safety management systems (SMS). The organizations codify the behaviors, techniques and principles used in international air navigation. They also foster international air transport planning to ensure safe and orderly development. Some of their critical roles include flight inspection, facilitating border-crossing rules and prevention of disorderly intervention. ICAO also defines the protocols that should be used when investigating air accidents. FAA controls the United States commercial air transportation, encourages creation of civil aeronautics pushing for programs that ensure that there is reduced aircraft noise and no other negative environmental effects caused by the aviation industry. To promote safety, ICAO identifies and communicates information about weather conditions, area control centers and flight service stations all over the world.

Aircraft Fire Suppression Systems

Three aircraft fire suppression systems are used. They include: the use of thermal switch, continuous loop, and thermocouple. Thermal switch system has several detectors and sensing devices. The thermal switch also has several lights that are energized by the aircraft power system. These tools are used to detect the aircraft temperature levels. Thermocouple system relies on the rate of temperature change or rise but it does not give a warning when the engine overheats slowly or when there is a short circuit. It has a relay box and warning lights. The wiring consists of the detector circuit, test circuit, and the alarm circuit. Aircraft use continuous loop systems for power plant or wheel protection. This system gives superior detection performance that is not offered by other methods. Continuous loop systems are popular because they can work and survive in harsh conditions.



TWA 800 is an indication of the dangers stating that fire tragedies can happen in the aircraft environment. Although NTSB and the FBI did investigations that lasted many years, no comprehensive answer was given concerning the cause of the accident. The controversy of information relayed by both bodies regarding the same issue shows that there is a possibility of conspiracy. Given the fact that at the occurrence of the accident presidential elections were just around the corner, the government could have covered up the story so that it could not have any impact on the voters’ experience. While witnesses claim that there was a streak of light ascending to the aircraft, NTSB gives a compelling view by proposing that the streaks of light were descending pieces of wreckage. Incidents like these should be prevented at all costs. Actual causes of such accidents should also be established.


Many changes have been witnessed in the field of aviation. Some organizations and institutions have been formed with responsibility to embrace and direct changes in the aviation industry. Strong tools are now being adopted in this regard. Although many changes are yet to be witnessed, most changes have proven to be impactful in terms of providing better and secure experiences. Many changes like integration of fire detection system within the main part of the aircraft have led to more responsive systems that work according to the user’s expectations. The systems that can tell the fault level are very common in today’s aircraft. They also offer support tube that is mounted of sensing elements as well as authentic self-interrogation. Changes to secure the airport environment have been deployed. They include prohibition of materials that can provoke smoke or flame.

Incidents that Caused Safety Modification

On the 2nd April, 2014, UTair Flight 120 crashed a few minutes after take-off. The plane was en-route from Tyumen to Surgut, Russia. 33 out of 40 people lost their lives in the accident. The plane is said to have come down due to bad weather. The accident prompted the manufacturers to review aircraft design specifications concerning aircraft wiring systems to ensure that the systems are safe and to ensure that sufficient isolation is provided for wiring related system issues. The need for improved documentation or reporting techniques has been advocated to reduce unsafe wiring conditions. The use of new technology in circuit breakers or automated wire test tools was also found necessary. The pilots should be trained a lot to get skills that enable them to recognize and probably repair unsafe wiring conditions.

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