Fear of flying
The story of TWA 841 and Hoot’s battle to clear his name covers a time span of over twenty years. During that time there have been a number of fatal airline accidents. A number of these accidents are tangentially connected to TWA 841. For the passengers and crew aboard TWA 841, every fatal airline accident is looked at with a unique and shared insight that few people have. They know what it is like to be on an aircraft that is about to crash. They have a better understanding of what those on board might have been thinking and sensing moments before impact.
Of the many airline accidents that have occurred since April 4, 1979, the one that had the closest connection to TWA 841 was the DC-10 crash of American Airlines Flight 191 on May 25, 1979. A little less than two months into the 841 investigation, with investigators already pointing fingers at the crew, American Airlines Flight 191 crashed shortly after takeoff from Chicago O’Hare airport killing all 271 souls on board and another two people on the ground. It remains the most deadly airline accident in U.S. history.
The significance of Flight 191 to the TWA 841 investigation came as a result of the grounding of the DC-10 fleet shortly after the accident. Every DC-10 in the world, some 300 aircraft, were grounded. American Airlines alone had to ground 40 aircraft. The reason for the grounding was due to several factors. For one, flight 191 was the fourth fatal crash of a DC-10 since they were first introduced in 1971. There had also been several non-fatal crashes. One airline, Overseas National Airways (ONA), lost two new DC-10s within a year of receiving them. Another factor was concerns of a structural problem with the engine pylon system. This concern came after investigators discovered that the number one engine had been ripped away from the wing during takeoff.
As investigators looking into TWA 841 followed the developments related to Flight 191, they worried that the Boeing 727 fleet could meet a similar fate. After all, they weren’t sure what had caused TWA 841 to roll over and dive some 39,000 feet. Grounding all Boeing 727s until a cause could be determined would not have been an unreasonable step to take. But the repercussions of that action would have had serious ramifications throughout the aviation industry. There were over 1,800 727’s in service worldwide at that time. A grounding of the entire 727 fleet would have crippled the industry. It is not unreasonable to assume that Boeing and the NTSB felt pressured to find fault elsewhere than the plane.
There were other parallels that can be drawn from the Flight 191 investigation. When investigators found a broken pylon bolt, they prematurely blamed the bolt for having caused the accident. It was another example of investigators speculating before all the facts were known and latching onto a theory while excluding other clues. Additionally, the slats played a significant role in the 191 accident.
The story of Flight 191 was told in the National Geographic series Seconds From Disaster. Remember as you watch the documentary that everything you see occurred just weeks after TWA 841.