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Standing by findings

As NTSB is petitioned to re-open investigation into TWA 800, researcher stands by findings

"We believe we identified a plausible cause for the explosion in the center wing fuel tank of TWA 800," said Bob Kauffman, a distinguished research chemist in UDRI's Nonstructural Materials division and a principal investigator into the 1996 crash of TWA flight 800 near East Moriches, N.Y., that killed all 230 people aboard.

On June 19 of this year, the National Transportation Safety Board received a petition to reopen the crash investigation from a group of people who have long believed that a missile brought down the plane. But Kauffman, who was part of a research team hired by the FAA in 1999 to find an ignition source for the center-wing fuel tank explosion identified by an NTSB investigation to be the cause of the crash, said he remains confident in his team’s research and in his personal belief that a missile was not involved in the crash.

Kauffman and his team discovered that electrical residues that form in the presence of low-sulfur jet fuel, water and silver-coated surfaces are conductive, and can ignite jet fuel when exposed to electrical power as low as that from a 9-volt battery. Those conductive residues were found on fuel tank wires recovered from the accident site and other aircraft experiencing fuel-level measurement problems. The researchers also determined that frayed fuel-sensor wiring likely played a significant role in the explosion by serving as the energy source to ignite the residues.

After identifying the likely ignition source of the explosion, Kauffman was able to re-create the event in his fluid analysis lab by adding drops of water and fuel to a silver-plated hardware nut, connected to a low power source, to allow conductive residues to form. He then connected the nut to a 9-volt battery and, by dropping a single drop of jet fuel onto the nut, created a miniature "explosion" in the form of a flare of fire. The results were replicated in labs operated by the FAA, Arizona State University and SRI International, which assembled the research team under contract to the FAA.

"Based on all the evidence collected and evaluated by the NTSB investigation team, as well as our own investigation, it’s my personal belief that a missile was not the cause of the explosion."

As a result of the investigation, Kauffman pursued and was awarded FAA funding to develop self-healing wire as well as "smart" RFID technology to help find faulty wiring in aircraft. Both products have been successfully developed and each received an R&D 100 award for most promising technology; the self-healing wire was licensed by Pinnacle Inc. in Beavercreek and the RFID sensor technology has been licensed by American Thermal Instruments in Moraine.

Each year, sponsored research programs at the University of Dayton provide real-world research opportunities to nearly 300 undergraduate and graduate students working with more than 500 professional and faculty researchers from the Research Institute, the School of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences.

June 21, 2013

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