July 16, 2006

Flight 800 -- it was 10 years ago, tomorrow.

What happened?
Investigators eventually recovered 98 percent of the wreckage from the ocean floor and painstakingly rebuilt a large part of the airliner.

"We studied if it had been a missile, what would it have done to the fuselage? We had scientists in the desert shooting rockets into old fuselages," [said Robert Francis, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.] "We didn't find a single piece of wreckage that would have pointed to that kind of explosion. So I say to the missile theorists, 'Show me something."' ...

In the end, he said the definitive answer to the mystery was the center fuel tank.

Why did so many people have doubts?

"It's more acceptable to the public if somebody did this, rather than blame it on maintenance or design," said Pete Field, a retired Marine Corps pilot from Missouri who now works as an aviation crash consultant.

He said witnesses who claimed to have seen streaks of light heading toward the doomed jetliner were actually seeing the plane breaking up after the catastrophe -- the official theory offered by the NTSB.

"You see trails [of light] and it's easy to get your mind confused," he said. "I do accident investigations all the time and I find that the mind traps an image, even if it's not there. Even some aviation experts will tell you they saw something that just could not have happened."
Why do people find it "more acceptable" to believe that something was done intentionally than to see it as just a mistake? It's painful to think that human beings can be so evil, but maybe we like to have an image of punishing someone for the things that go very wrong.

But it's larger than that. We like to think there's meaning, that behind what has happened there is an intelligence, thinking and planning. We reveal this need when we believe in God and when we say "Everything happens for a reason." So if bad things happen, we even want there to be evil people who did it.

If the weather is bad, instead of it being just more meaningless weather, we think God has sent it, perhaps to punish us for our sins, or we can leave God out of the explanation and say it is just our bad behavior -- greedily burning fossil fuels -- that is the cause. I'm not saying the theory that human beings are causing global warming isn't true, just that thinking it is true is one of the things that satisfies our need to find someone responsible.

You see trails of light and it's easy to get your mind confused.

37 comments:

Slocum said...

Why do people find it "more acceptable" to believe that something was done intentionally than to see it as just a mistake?

I would say that it's because if it were a missile, then it would seem like a one-time event we wouldn't have to worry about when we're flying. But if the plane just exploded on its own--yikes.

Ann Althouse said...

I don't buy that as an analysis of human psychology, because we go around worrying much more about terrorism and crime than we do about all the potential accidents and mechanical failures that could hurt us just as much. We are both more afraid of what people will do to us and more eager to think that bad things are done on purpose.

PatCA said...

I started watching it but then realized it was not the crash that I have my doubts about--the one with the Egyptian pilot that went into the Atlantic. So I guess I'm not the audience they sought because I thought that this was a mechanical failure.

twwren said...

Nelson DeMille's "Night Fall", a work of fiction, provides an intersting survey of all the "What ifs?" and he is a good story teller.

Ann Althouse said...

Pat: After I wrote this post, I was thinking about EgyptAir 990. There, people didn't want to say the pilot did it on purpose, despite all the evidence. Here's the Atlantic article, from November 2001. I seem to remember being in the middle of reading it when 9/11 took place.

Simon said...

It's just as well this all happened on Clinton's watch, otherwise you'd have bearded lefty weirdos trying to teach U-Wisc students how Bush shot down a civilian airliner because [insert your choice of moonbat reason here].

Hecla Ma said...

I remember two things about it.

1) President Clinton's first remarks were an assurance that if the wreck was the work of "arab terrorists" they'd be "brought to justice." I remember thinking, why would he say that, unless that's what initial intelligence is telling him?

2) Seeing Stephanopolous on a panel discussing terrorism and saying, "when flight 800 was blown up," and then quickly changing that to, "when it went down..." or something like that.

I never bought the official explanation of "fuel vapors" for a very simple reason - it never happened before, and it hasn't happened since. There hasn't been a single case of a plane blowing up all by itself, like that.

So, part of me will always believe there is more to the story than we are told. Logic seems to demand it. Memory does, too. President Clinton never wanted to deal with terrorism, or acknowledge it as a real threat (witness his MIA reactions to both the '93 bombing of the WTC and the attack on the USS COLE) - even now it is not something he talks about. His "Global Initiative" program is about povery, religion, education - it doesn't mention terrorism. For some reason, it's not on the man's radar.

peter hoh said...

You see trails of light and it's easy to get your mind confused.

This happens every time I let someone take pictures of me when I'm drunk.

tommy said...

it never happened before, and it hasn't happened since.

Read This.

I'm not going to go rummaging through all of my past FAA safety bulletins and notices, but it's happened before, generally on the ground. The military has lost some because of it too.

Hecla Ma said...

Tommy, that's very interesting, and I'll keep it in mind, thanks.

If I recall, though, didn't they say 800 - a 747 - went down because of vapor and sparks from a wiring design flaw? I recall seeing reports that all the AirForce Ones were being completely re-wired, etc, etc, and then the whole subject went away!

Doesn't change the other things, though - Clinton's remarks and Steph's!

Sanjay said...

I believe Anna Maria Shorter died on that flight, too -- so sad for everyone on the flight and their families, but for whatever foolish reason that leaves you feeling connected to it.

Verification woord,no kidding, is UHHNY.

Buddy Larsen said...

Don't terrorists always take credit for what they do, though? The war is fought for the newsmedia, the baddies would've announced, you'd think.

Josh Kinniard said...

The fact of the matter is: None of us have any idea what actually happened. Period.

The night before the opening of the Games, wasn't it?

Simon said...

Josh,
Well, um, yes - we do. They had an investigation that determined what happened, so your assertion that "no one knows" is really just a passive-agressive way of saying that you don'/t believe the official report.

BigDirigible said...

"They had an investigation that determined what happened"

Spoken like someone who hasn't read very many FAA or NTSB accident reports.

Speaking as someone who has read a few ... well, they're better than nothing. And a few seem to be dead accurate. The others ... make one think that we taxpayers aren't getting our money's worth.

tommy said...

then the whole subject went away!

The plane I currently fly still has a safety directive concerning the fuel pumps as a result of the investigation. Everything is getting rewired because of it, military and civilian alike and the story only went away because you don't read the stuff that's still discussing it. The first time I heard of this happening was 20 years or so ago the Air Force had a B-52 burn up on the ground when they turned on the pumps to transfer fuel.

It's fairly cut and dried, happened before nothing new or unusual stuff. Unless you want to support a conspiracy theory, then you just need to ignore all of the history about how it's happened before.

Scott said...

My old man used to build 'em at Boeing. I asked him about the 800 flight, and he said that the engineers there he talked to (some weeks later) knew immediately what had brought the plane down (the center fuel tank), something they apparently had had some concern about, and was the first thing that popped up to them when the plane went down.

Wow. Ten years. I'm getting frackin' old ...

/Still, if it ain't Boeing, I ain't goin'
//Airbus engine blew up on takeoff in Spain a couple days ago

Hecla Ma said...

Tommy,

I think I thanked you for the info, found it interesting and said I would keep it in mind. I'd hardly call that "ignoring."

Hell, I'm willing to believe it. But stipulating that the thing is 100% possible doesn't change Clinton's first reaction or Steph's misspeak.

That's all I'm saying.

JackM said...

Hasn't anyone read. "First Strike" by Cashill/Sanders?

PatCA said...

That's the one, Ann, thanks. I remember being so puzzled by what I thought was a solo act of madness. Now we know of course it was classic jihad.

Tyler Simons said...

Thecla: President Clinton never wanted to deal with terrorism, or acknowledge it as a real threat (witness his MIA reactions to ... and the attack on the USS COLE)

You should read the 7/10-17/06 New Yorker piece on Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who was in charge of the Cole investigation. He might be lying, and Clinton might have, for some weird reason, leaned on the CIA to withhold specific information requested by the bureau that may well have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Still, the simplest explanation for the inept investigation into the Cole attack seems to be the innane turf war between the two agencies. Clinton might not have done much to foster communication between the two of them, but in that respect, he's no different from the two Republican presidents who preceeded him.

Josh Kinniard said...

Actually, Simon, your assumption (based on a couple of my sentences) is incorrect; I am, honestly, not the sort of person that believes in conspiracy theories OR government statements/reports, especially when concerning such high priority situations.

It's a good theory in life, generally.

Hecla Ma said...

Clinton might not have done much to foster communication between the two of them, but in that respect, he's no different from the two Republican presidents who preceeded him.

Tyler...It's true that neither of the GOP presidents who preceded Clinton did all they could have done about terrorism...and Mr. Carter well, the less said the better. But it was Clinton's administration, thanks Jamie Gorelick, who instituted the "wall" because the CIA and the FBI which certainly did not help matters.

Hecla Ma said...

shees, sorry, it's late...I meant to say, But it was Clinton's administration (thanks Jamie Gorelick) who instituted the "wall" BETWEEN the CIA and the FBI which certainly did not help matters.

SaysMeow said...

Thecla,

Is this the Clinton remark you are referring to? It doesn't support your memory. July 18, 1996--he only says "we don't know what happened; don't jump to conclusions." Then the reporters jump in with 3 straight questions about terrorism.

http://www.highbeam.com/browse/Government-Politics-Weekly+Compilation+of+Presidential+Documents/July-1996-p1

(Choose the 4th item under the heading July 22, 1996)

Anga2010 said...

Ann, you really need to read Job again. Bad things happen to good people all the time. If you invoke God, you must know that His purpose is beyond our understanding, but in this case, you ought to understand that the Devil also has some involement. That there is a fate and a purpose which underlies all of our experiences is a belief, but not necessarily an action which requires an equal and opposite reaction.

bill said...

Why do so many people have doubts? I like this quote from Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum:

I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.

fast richard said...

The nagging doubt I have always had involves the claim that the wings and tail section held together and climbed thousands of feet, after the nose section was blown off in the initial explosion. The center tank is surrounded by the wing attachment structure. I don't see how you could blow the center tank without blowing the wings off immediately.

My own speculation mostly centers around questions about what maintenance was being overlooked, skipped, or pencil-whipped, at the already failing TWA. The Airline was already known as the Temporary Workers Association.

Ann Althouse said...

"Ann, you really need to read Job again..."

Anga, you really need to read this post again. I'm not asking why, if there is a God, he allows bad things to happen to good people. I'm making an observation about human psychology. As for myself, I try to be accurate about observing when bad things happen and not succumbing to the instinctive need to find that there is a mind that intended them.

Tantor said...

Thecla Mauro: "I never bought the official explanation of "fuel vapors" for a very simple reason - it never happened before, and it hasn't happened since. There hasn't been a single case of a plane blowing up all by itself, like that."

Actually, fuel vapor explosions have been happenning periodically for decades. There is a fuel vapor explosion on an airliner about once every five years. It was enough of a problem that a system was built to prevent it: pumping nitrogen into the fuel cells to drive out the oxygen that makes a fire possible.

Tantor said...

Fast Richard: "The nagging doubt I have always had involves the claim that the wings and tail section held together and climbed thousands of feet, after the nose section was blown off in the initial explosion. The center tank is surrounded by the wing attachment structure. I don't see how you could blow the center tank without blowing the wings off immediately."

The nose section was not blown off. The fuel tank explosion blew a hole in the fuselage. The airstream tore off the nose, the tear beginning at the hole. The explosion did not damage the wings and so they remained intact until the stresses of the dive tore one off before impact.

Tantor

J said...

"Spoken like someone who hasn't read very many FAA or NTSB accident reports"

Unlike a Newsweek or NYT article, people writing NTSB reports (the NTSB is responsible for all airplane crashes; a report written by an FAA designee is still an NTSB report), accident investigators aren't allowed to make stuff up or descend into uninformed speculation.


"The nagging doubt I have always had involves the claim that the wings and tail section held together and climbed thousands of feet, after the nose section was blown off in the initial explosion"

You're assuming that the entire structure failed at the same time. Generally, the wing structure is the last thing to fail, and a center tank explosion is going to push the center of gravity back - way back if things in front of it fall off the airplane, causing what's left to climb for awhile.

As Tommy pointed out, there are (annoying) procedural restrictions on some aircraft to prevent exposed fuel pumps to this day. This has been out of the news for a long time, but it's a daily fact of life in the airline business.

The business about Clinton and Stephanopoulos talking about terrorism in this case is simply people who don't know what they're talking about blathering away. I believe Condi Rice did the same thing saying that suicide hijackings were a totally new idea, when we'd had at least two suicide hijackings in the US prior to this, including one in which the plan was, yes, to crash the airplane into a specific location to destroy that location as well ( http://www.tailstrike.com/070494.htm ).

"because we go around worrying much more about terrorism and crime than we do about all the potential accidents and mechanical failures that could hurt us just as much"

I'm not sure there's much difference between your position and Slocum's. We are not good at assessing risk and uncomfortable with the idea that bad things can happen to us at random, thus the desire to blame someone.

RogerA said...

IIRC there were the usual conspiracy theories, but when the NTSB talked about fuel vapor, I immediately thought about boats--For any enclosed engine, a boat requires a pump to evacuate any bilge vapors before you crank the engine. That analogy, though obviously flawed, made sense to me.

Anga2010 said...

Ann,
Truly, I read the post 5 times before I posted because I wanted to make a sense in my comments.
What I had assumed, and now I presume I was wrong in assuming, is that when you used the words "we", "us" and "our" in your post you were including yourself.
I believe now that you were speaking of others in general and not yourself and so I apologize for misinterpreting your words.
I read your blog all of the time and like most of it and so don't let this cause undue concern.
I was mistaken.

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, Anga. Sorry if I seemed harsh.

JimNtexas said...

Recently a fuel tank on a Boeing 727 exploded on the ground on a hot day in India.

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/business/271411_fueltanks24ww.html

In addition, most small missiles could not bring down a Boeing 747. It's been tried a number of times, most recently with an Airbus departing Bagdad.

http://coppermine.luchtzak.be/thumbnails.php?album=36

These small missles damage the aircraft, but the crew can generally keep on flying long enough to land.

And of course nobody has ever invented a missile that could shoot down an airliner without leaving many fragments of itself in the target airframe.

Jim C. said...

I seem to remember some psychology study. Two scenarios were presented. First, a car is parked on a hill and its brakes failed, causing damage to the car in front of it. Most people judged this an accident and nobody was at fault. Second, same circumstances, but a person is walking between the cars and is injured. Most people said someone was at fault and should be held responsible.

Thecla Mauro said, President Clinton's first remarks were an assurance that if the wreck was the work of "arab terrorists" they'd be "brought to justice." I remember thinking, why would he say that, unless that's what initial intelligence is telling him?

I don't remember the coverage, but I'm guessing a lot of people were considering it as a possibility. In the absence of facts, anything is possible. When facts come in, possibilities are eliminated. Your question reveals the problems with speculation in advance of the facts.

So, part of me will always believe there is more to the story than we are told. Logic seems to demand it.

Logic is only as good as its inputs - facts and assumptions. If any of those is wrong or important ones are missing, that can destroy the logic.