Associated Retired Aviation
ARAP E-Mail on Tank Explosions
To whom it may concern,
At 1:00pmET today, the Discovery Channel presented its TWA800 "documentary". As a manufacturer of UL Listed steel fuel tanks, I was disturbed by the presentation of a "scientific test" which demonstrated that a Boeing 737 fuel tank under "similar conditions" would indeed explode if a spark were introduced to the tank. I am therefore compelled to write in the hope that someone with a vested interest might read this.
I sense serious defects with the test as presented. As a manufacturer of steel fuel tanks for both fuel oil and gasoline use, there are several basic axioms which guide our designs.* One basic tenet is that a properly designed and vented fuel tank will not explode, even when engulfed in fire. The issue with a fuel tank is not explosion-- it is rupture from overpressure from gases produced by boiling liquid. Provided that the tank is vented, it will not rupture. We don't worry about explosion as much as tank rupture from overpressure or tank structural failure from heat. Most important, however, is that a fuel tank fully engulfed will not explode because there is no oxygen in the tank. All of the "air" has been displaced by heavier-than-air fuel vapors. Remember that these tanks are vented-- these are not pressure vessels. So the residual fuel that would always be present in the tank would give-off vapors which displace the air out the vent. The Boeing 747 fuel tank in question had not been emptied. Presumably it had been quiescent on the ground for many hours prior to flight. The fuel tank should therefore have been fully saturated in fuel such that all "air" had been displaced. Furthermore, as the aircraft climbed, and pressure dropped, the tank would have further evacuated-- fresh air would not have been drawn into the vented tank until the aircraft descended. As air pressure dropped, so would the boiling point, resulting in a greater concentration of vapors and displacement of oxygen. Therefore, a spark or even an open flame could not have ignited the vapors.
Perhaps this explains why aircraft fuel tanks are not exploding all the time-- and car fuel tanks as well. In fact, TWA800 is the only aviation case I have knowledge of and I am an interested person who follows these things (I am a private pilot with a life-long aviation passion).
The Discovery Channel presentation is defective:
1. The test tank was freshly filled and immediately tested, not allowing time for the atmosphere within the tank to saturate with vapors as would have been the case with the TWA800 aircraft.
2. The test tank had air circulation fans installed within, which would have both inhibited evacuation of air and introduced fuel droplets into the air. The 747 had no such mixing fans.
3. The test tank was tested at atmospheric pressure. The TWA800 event occurred at 15,000 feet or so, where pressure is greatly reduced.
4. The test tank was artificially heated by a salamander perhaps producing spot overheating. The TWA tank would have been both at uniform temperature and would have cooled substantially during the climb.
Furthermore, the flash point of Jet-A is well above 100F. The test was performed at approx 125F, presumably below the flash point of Jet-A. A flammable liquid can only ignite in free air when the flash point is exceeded. Artificially introduced droplets were probably introduced in the test. In fact, the test appears to be so defective as to be contrived such that the test tank was indeed a "bomb" producing desired results.
I am disturbed that this is presented to the gullible public as fact and the final word. I believe that the facts of metallic tank construction weigh strongly against the "results of the scientific test" presented on Discovery. Those of us who manufacture steel fuel tanks know this.
I have no political ax to grind and am not a conspiracy nut. However, as an engineer, a pilot, a person of knowledge and a manufacturer of fuel tanks, I have severe doubts that the TWA800 tank exploded from an internally introduced spark. The reasons presented above substantiate those doubts.
I hope that this letter will help advance your search for the truth.
Thomas Debrey, President