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Voice Recorder Transcript Shows TWA Flight 800 Pilots Discussed Fluctuating Fuel Gauge

December 9, 1997

Voice Recorder Transcript Shows TWA Flight 800 Pilots Discussed Fluctuating Fuel Gauge Moments Before the Plane’s Center Fuel Tank ExplodedBy PAT MILTON

BALTIMORE (AP) _ In the final moments before TWA Flight 800 blew up, pilots chatted about restless passengers, a wildly fluctuating fuel gauge and how the jet was climbing faster than normal, like a ``homesick angel.″

At the end, there is an abrupt, tenth-of-a-second noise that trails off into silence, possibly the sound of the center fuel tank exploding.

The 54-page transcript released Monday during the opening of federal hearings into the July 17, 1996, disaster was described by investigators as routine conversation, revealing nothing unusual leading up to the blast aboard the Paris-bound flight that killed all 230 people aboard.

Having ruled out a bomb or missile, investigators are searching for a mechanical explanation for the explosion in the Boeing 747′s center fuel tank. Their goal: to prevent something similar from happening again.

The weeklong hearings are intended to gather facts, and a probable cause will not be determined until late next year.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman James Hall warned victims’ relatives attending the hearings that they might want to leave the room before another exhibit _ a videotape simulation that chronicled the disaster second by second, picking up where the cockpit voice recorder left off.

It shows the explosion, the nose of the plane shearing off, while the fuselage continues to rise. Suddenly, the plane slows and begins dropping, diving for a long time before bursting into flames and crashing into the Atlantic Ocean off New York’s Long Island.

On the transcript, a comment from TWA Capt. Ralph Kevorkian, six minutes before the explosion, appeared intriguing and a little eerie.

``Seems like a homesick angel here,″ Kevorkian said, using pilot lingo to say the plane was climbing faster than normal.

``It’s bleeding off airspeed,″ Capt. Steven Snyder responded, implying that the minor increase in speed was not a problem.

``Yeah,″ Snyder said, ending that discussion.

Investigators have said the flight data recorder showed nothing unusual.

Then, two minutes before the explosion, Kevorkian said: ``Look at that crazy fuel flow indicator there on No. 4. See that.″

Alfred Dickinson, the NTSB chief investigator, testified that it is not unusual for the indicator to fluctuate. Investigators cautioned that the transcript can be misleading if parts are taken out of context. Dickinson said the pilot communications seemed routine.

At 8:30:15 p.m., Boston Air Traffic Control told Flight 800 that it could climb from 13,000 to 15,000 feet.

``Climb thrust,″ Kevorkian said before quickly adding, ``Climb to one five thousand.″

``Power’s set,″ said flight engineer Richard Campbell, indicating he had adjusted the power to allow the plane to go higher. It was 8:30:35 p.m. Those were the last words from the plane. Thirty-seven seconds later, it blew up.

The transcript chronicled more than 31 minutes of conversation, beginning when a gate agent at Kennedy International Airport told the cockpit crew that everyone was seated for the flight to Paris.

The flight had been delayed more than an hour because a piece of luggage seemed to be on board without the passenger. It later turned out that the passenger had been on board the whole time.

``We won’t bother telling them that,″ Kevorkian said of the restless passengers.

``We’d have a mutiny back there,″ Campbell said.

Also Monday, FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom met with about 75 family members of victims to brief them on the criminal investigation he suspended three weeks ago after finding no proof of a bomb or a missile.

After a two-hour meeting, he said most of the families had accepted the FBI’s findings, but a few thought the FBI was holding something back. ``I tried to convince them that nobody knows the answer to this tragedy,″ he said.

NTSB’s Hall told the hearing that such theories as lightning, bird strikes, a bullet and a laser beam were eliminated, and the investigation was focusing on the explosion of the center fuel tank.

Hall noted that the explosion was ``an extremely rare event″ and said Boeing 747′s have an ``admirable safety record.″

Still, he said, the Federal Aviation Administration was trying to eliminate every possible ignition source to prevent similar fuel tank explosions.

``I for one don’t see how every ignition source can ever be eliminated,″ Hall said, adding that a more attainable goal would be ``to try to eliminate explosive vapors in fuel tanks.″

Tests have shown that vapors in the nearly empty center fuel tank were probably ready to explode even before the plane left the ground.

Temperatures in the tank were as high as 145 degrees while the plane sat on the runway and parts of air conditioning units less than a foot from the fuel tank heated up to nearly 400 degrees.

One theory is that a surge of electricity from damaged wiring could have sparked the blast.

``This is the big issue,″ said NTSB spokesman Peter Goelz. ``Our job is to make recommendations so that these accidents don’t happen again.″

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