TWA 800 and Electromagnetic Interference: Work Already Completed and Work that Still Needs to be Done

Editors’ note:The following is a Web-only supplement to a series of articles published by Elaine Scarry in The New York Review of Books.

In July of 1998, the National Transportation Safety Board announced that it would attempt to assess the strength of the electromagnetic environment surrounding TWA 800 the night it fell. In order to do this, it would enlist the help of two agencies: the Joint Spectrum Center, whose work is specifically dedicated to solving problems inside the military that arise from joint use of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), some of whose scientists study the ways electromagnetic interference can affect civilian planes and spacecraft.

A three-stage process followed, each stage building on the foundation laid by the stage that had preceded it. In August of 1999 the NTSB compiled and forwarded to the Joint Spectrum Center a list of sea- and aircraft in the vicinity of TWA 800. The Joint Spectrum Center, limiting itself to the transmitters on this list (as well as to its own list of fixed transmitters on land), then calculated the signal frequency and strength of the land, sea, and air transmissions at the surface of the plane. Its formal report, “TWA Flight 800 Electromagnetic Environment,” completed in January of 1999, identified forty-five transmitters whose signal strength at the accident site was higher than one volt per meter (the threshold figure the Safety Board asked them to use).1 NASA then took the Joint Spectrum Center figures and analyzed them in order to determine whether they were strong enough to have provided the ignition source for the central fuel tank explosion on TWA 800; NASA concluded they were not.2

Each of the three stages of work enumerated above broke new ground. First, as the Safety Board noted at its August 22-23, 2000, hearing, though it had previously looked at questions connected to electromagnetic interference in navigation and communication, this was the first time it had ever explored the way in which electromagnetic interference might act as an ignition source. Second, this was also the first time that the extraordinary resources of the Joint Spectrum Center had ever been called upon on behalf of commercial airline passengers3 : in the past, its resources had been dedicated exclusively to military planes4 or planes carrying high government officials.5 Third, as NASA’s formal report itself states, in the course of NASA’s work on behalf of TWA 800, their scientists developed a new method of analyzing electromagnetic interference from sources external to the plane that they hope will provide an important tool in future inquiries.6

These innovations have been appropriately saluted and placed in the public record by the agencies who carried them out. The article that follows below, while cognizant of these important achievements, will focus on the incompleteness of the work carried out on behalf of TWA 800. It will explain why the projects so far undertaken by the Joint Spectrum Center and NASA should—despite their…

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