Boeing role in probes of crashes scrutinized
by James V. Grimaldi
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON - Since the dawn of civil aviation, crashes in the
United States have been investigated with the help of the regulator
and the regulated - agencies such as the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) and companies such as Boeing.
But as Boeing joins what's expected to be another long and
arduous crash investigation into EgyptAir Flight 990, fresh
questions are arising about the Seattle aerospace company's role
in previous crash inquiries.
In a harsh rebuke of Boeing, National Transportation Safety
Board (NTSB) Chairman Jim Hall last week criticized the
company's corporate culture and its "statistical" approach to
A day later, a U.S. Senator senator blasted the company for not
forwarding to crash investigators an important scientific study.
And at the end of the week, Boeing continued a quiet pursuit of
far-fetched theories in another crash, the downing of TWA Flight
800 three years ago.
While totally unrelated to the EgyptAir crash, Boeing-hired
scientists scoured the debris searching for evidence that a bomb
or missile brought down the Boeing 747, though FBI and NTSB
investigators have long ruled out sabotage as a cause.
While some critics had accused Boeing of quietly pushing a
bomb-and-missile theory, the tests and court records reveal for
the first time evidence that Boeing has actually refused to rule out
a bomb or missile in the July 1996 TWA crash.
Boeing's seemingly conflicting role - as a key participant in crash
probes and a manufacturer fending off liability claims - was
examined in a study of crash investigations by the Rand Corp., a
California-based think tank.
The study, commissioned by the NTSB and expected to be
turned over to the safety board in the next two weeks, will
propose an overhaul of crash investigations, according to people
familiar with its findings.
While still endorsing Boeing's participation in crash investigations,
Rand is prepared to outline safeguards to prevent manufacturers
from using their investigative role to slow or confuse crash
In particular, Rand is expected to propose that manufacturers be
kept at an arm's length from certain scientific studies to ensure the
independence and integrity of investigations.
Boeing engineers are again playing a critical role as the
investigation into the fate of EgyptAir Flight 990, a Boeing 767
jetliner, gets under way in Rhode Island. The jet plummeted into
the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Nantucket, Mass., one week
ago, killing all 217 aboard.
At the same time last week, Boeing was continuing to pursue
evidence of foul play in the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off
Long Island, N.Y. Two years after the FBI and federal aviation
investigators ruled out a bomb or missile in that crash, Boeing has
refused to abandon the sabotage theory. Safety officials have
concluded that the jet's center fuel tank exploded but have yet to
identify the ignition source.
On Wednesday, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, revealed a
General Accounting Office (GAO) report showing that Boeing for
three years failed to share with Flight 800 investigators a scientific
study that could have helped determine the cause of the TWA
Boeing's refusal to eliminate a bomb or missile as a cause of that
earlier crash is a strategy that appears to be coming largely from
company attorneys, including those at the Seattle firm Perkins
Coie, which is defending Boeing in a lawsuit filed by family
members who lost loved ones in TWA Flight 800. While that case
is pending, several other families have settled their cases.
But the legal message also is being echoed by Boeing's top
official, Chairman Phil Condit, who told The Seattle Times last
week that the bomb-or-missile theory "is improbable at this point.
But until you find a probable cause, you are never sure."
Grassley, the Iowa senator who has been looking into the flaws in
the investigation of Flight 800, said Boeing could be inviting
ridicule by trying to disprove the NTSB, the FBI, the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and others who rejected bomb
and missile theories.
"How can you argue with four government agencies?" Grassley
asked. "I don't think they enhance their own public relations if they
continue to pursue the missile or bomb theory."
Among the ways Boeing is actively chasing a bomb or missile
theory in the TWA crash:
At the demand of Boeing attorneys, chemical and metallurgical
tests were conducted Thursday to scrutinize Flight 800 wreckage
in search of microscopic remnants of a bomb, a missile or
shrapnel, according to people familiar with the tests.
In the past few months, Boeing has been reviewing FBI interviews
with witnesses, many of whom claimed that they saw a sliver of
light streaking toward the aircraft before it exploded. FBI and
Central Intelligence Agency analyses discounted the sightings as
For the past year, Boeing also has refused in court records to rule
out a bomb, air-to-air missile, surface-to-air missile or improvised
explosive device in the July 1996 crash in which 230 people died.
And, as part of a legal strategy to defend against a Flight 800
lawsuit, Boeing has continued forwarding a theory first posed to
the NTSB: that a missile exploded outside the 747 and a flaming
fragment pierced the fuselage and ignited the center fuel tank.
"What we're doing is analyzing the available information to
determine what defenses are appropriate," Boeing General
Counsel Ted Collins said. "We haven't reached any conclusions.
We aren't going to advance a defense that doesn't make any
sense. We are trying to find out what happened."
The NTSB has determined that the plane's center fuel tank blew
up but has not found what sparked the blast. After an exhaustive
investigation, the FBI two years ago ruled out a missile or a bomb
as the ignition source. The NTSB does not believe Boeing's test
Thursday will change that conclusion. Instead, faulty wiring in a
fuel-measuring system remains among the prime suspects.
Indeed, in recent months the FBI has fielded criticism that the time
taken to rule out a criminal cause delayed fixing the design flaw
the NTSB identified in the crash.
And for more than a year now, federal investigators have
repeatedly tamped down bomb-and-missile suggestions as the
work of paranoid conspiracy theorists unwilling to face hard facts.
Some theories postulate that a Navy missile was at fault and allege
a government cover-up.
Steve Pounian, a New York attorney representing families suing
Boeing over the crash, predicted Boeing's aggressive pursuit of a
missile theory would eventually backfire.
"You wonder how long they can keep saying that (it might have
been a missile) while they are a major contractor of the
government," Pounian said. "I can't believe they are going to say it
is a Navy missile. How they can say that with a straight face and
sell government contracts?"
Boeing's lawyers are unwilling to go as far as to say a bomb or
missile is improbable. The only cause the company is legally
willing to categorize as unlikely - at this time - is a meteorite.
"Until such time as a cause is determined, a missile of any type
cannot be ruled out as a possible cause," Steven Bell, a Perkins
Coie attorney Boeing, wrote in a court document as part of a
Flight 800 lawsuit.
Boeing spokesman Russ Young said it is not up to Boeing to rule
"The NTSB seems to have crossed off various theories, but there
has been no `Eureka!' discovery," Young said. "We don't cross
off theories. The NTSB investigates the accident."
Boeing this week also came under fire for not giving Flight 800
investigators until this summer a 16-year-old report that could
have provided a crucial clue in the early days of the crash, when
federal authorities still hadn't ruled out foul play.
While Boeing initially told the FBI that the center fuel tank was
rarely in a highly flammable or near-explosive state, the 1980
study provided powerful evidence to the contrary.
The existence of the study was made public by criminal
investigators at the GAO as part of the probe launched by
Grassley's Senate Judiciary Committee panel.
Boeing denied that the delay in giving the report to the NTSB was
deliberate and instead blamed a miscommunication between the
company's commercial-airplane division and the military division.
The NTSB was informed about the report in March and it was
given to the board in June only after Grassley intervened.
The failure to turn it over sooner, Boeing told GAO investigators,
was due to a faulty computer database search. The Boeing
officials said they put the wrong key words into the search. The
report's title is "Center Wing Tank Fuel Heating Study."
Apparently, Boeing didn't search for any of those words.
James Kallstrom, the chief FBI agent blamed for allowing the
criminal probe to continue for so long, has now turned the tables
on the NTSB, criticizing the aviation investigators for not yet
issuing its probable cause.
"Is Boeing running the investigation or is the NTSB?" asked James
Kallstrom, the former assistant FBI director who ran the Flight
800 investigation. "Who's running the investigation? I point out
that the whole thing itself, the party system, has a built-in conflict
But the safety board staunchly defends the "party system" - under
which representatives from manufacturers, airlines and the pilots
association, among others, take part in the investigation - as the
most economical and sensible way to solve a crash.
Even if it comes accompanied by problems, officials are
convinced it is the best way and simply requires precautions and
skepticism to watch for biased information.
For nearly 12 hours Thursday, tests were conducted on part of
the Flight 800 fuel tank to search for soot, metallic debris, paint or
any other surface deposits and analysis will begin to determine
their potential source.
The NTSB reluctantly approved the examination requested by
Boeing. The tests, being performed by Chantilly, Va.,-based AR
Tech Testing, will analyze the wreckage with scanning electron
microscopes and other sophisticated devices to look for fractures.
A separate test on a pump was conducted for the plaintiffs in the
Boeing's stance might add more fuel to the report being
completed by the Rand think tank this month.
Early drafts of the Rand report propose an overhaul of federal
crash investigations that would distance companies such as Boeing
from certain scientific studies to insulate investigations from
interference by participants.
Rand has concluded the changes are necessary because Boeing,
the airlines and other companies facing potentially
multimillion-dollar liability over plane crashes might have an
incentive to slow down investigations to buy their attorneys time to
conclude lawsuits and protect the reputation of their products.
While endorsing the current practice of letting companies that are
a party to crashes participate in the investigations, Rand is urging
restrictions on analysis provided by companies such as Boeing
and turning over certain tasks to independent laboratories.
Rand also is urging an expansion of the NTSB's rulings on the
cause of plane crashes rather than putting limits on the "probable
cause" findings issued by the board, as some companies had
But the report rejects the idea of permitting a representative of
families of survivors to participate in the investigations. Adding
more participants with vested legal interests would further
complicate crash investigations.
Copyright © 1999 The Seattle Times Company