|The Wall Street Journal
November 1, 1999
U.S. Sees No Evidence Boeing Hid Data
SEATTLE -- Federal officials say they have no evidence that Boeing Co. intentionally covered up a 19-year-old safety report that could have clued investigators into what caused the crash of TWA Flight 800.
Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board told aides to Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) that the report commissioned by the Air Force to look into problems with the military version of Boeing's 747 could have directed them to the fuel tanks immediately rather wasting months searching for evidence of a missile attack or bomb.
The FBI spent over a year following reports of suspicious streaks in the sky, feared to be a surface-to-air missile, before announcing in November 1997 that mechanical failure was to blame. All 230 people on board Flight 800 died.
In a written statement Friday, the NTSB expressed "displeasure" and "dismay" about the three-year delay between the crash and the discovery of the report this spring.
Federal officials said they learned of the report's existence only in March after it was listed on the agenda for an Air Force task force studying the safety implications of the Flight 800 explosion. Boeing turned the report over to the NTSB in June.
The four-volume report focuses on whether excess heat from air conditioners in Boeing's E-4B military jet could create highly flammable fuel vapors in the central fuel tank.
Russ Young, spokesman for Boeing Commercial Airplane Group, said Saturday that differences between the E-4B and the 747 made the report largely irrelevant to the TWA investigation.
The E-4B, for example, has four air-conditioning units under the fuselage, compared with three in a standard 747, and the air conditioners often run for long periods in the E-4B while it is on the ground, Mr. Young said. The E-4B also burns a different fuel.
The report was overlooked by employees in the commercial airplane division because it dealt with a military aircraft, Mr. Young said. He said the company's procedures have since been changed to prevent that from happening again.
"In retrospect, although the relevance of that [report] is questionable, we wish we had found it earlier and passed it along," Mr. Young said. "There didn't seem to be any realization on the military side [of the company] that the investigation was relevant or potentially relevant."
The General Accounting Office, which conducts congressional probes, has been interviewing employees at Boeing and the Air Force and has found no evidence of an intentional coverup, Sen. Grassley aides said Saturday.
Sen. Grassley is chairman of the subcommittee that oversees airline disaster investigations.
After being briefed by the GAO Friday, Sen. Grassley said the TWA 800 tragedy could have been prevented if Boeing had brought it out after a 1990 fuel-tank explosion on a Philippines Airline Boeing 737 at an airport in Manila.
"When it's a matter of public safety, the ethic for both manufacturers and regulators must be to overreport," Sen. Grassley said Saturday. "If the NTSB had been given the 1980 report and others, it could have pressed the FAA to set the very standards finally proposed this week for airplane fuel tanks. The document, regardless of what it says, should have been reported to the NTSB."
The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday announced proposed regulations to make airplane fuel tanks less susceptible to explosions by requiring that new planes contain fuel systems that minimize flammable vapors and that aircraft makers develop new maintenance programs for fuel tanks within a year.
The NTSB hopes to complete its report on the crash of Flight 800 by