Affordable Explosion Prevention

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More than six years after TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 that crashed off Long Island killing all 230 on board, the FAA says it has found an affordable, effective system to slim the chances of the kind of fuel-tank explosion the NTSB found to have caused that disaster. At a news conference, complete with special effects, held Thursday in New Jersey, the feds unveiled a 160-pound on-board nitrogen generator intended to pump the inert gas into emptying fuel tanks. It's thought that explosive vapors inside the TWA jet's belly tank were somehow ignited, causing the plane to explode. The new system takes ambient air and reduces the oxygen content from 21 percent to 12 percent. The oxygen-reduced air makes a much less combustible mixture in the tank. Reporters viewing a comparison of explosions using ambient and oxygen-scrubbed air reported the ambient air created a much better show. Earlier proposals for this type of system, dating as far back as 1997, were criticized for high cost and weight but the new system apparently alleviates those concerns. "This is a single, self-contained system we can put on an airplane," said John Hickey, the FAA's director of aircraft certification services. Boeing has already applied to install the system on some of its jets and, depending on the outcome of flight tests, installations could begin sometime in 2004. NTSB records indicate at least three commercial Boeings have been lost to center wing fuel-tank explosions since 1990.

NOTE: AVweb has covered developments in this story in 1997, 2000 and 2001.