Secrets of the Virginia campus: A graveyard for crashed planes

The thought of a university campus conjures up images of academic buildings and students intently studying for exams. But GW’s Virginia campus contains one very different image: the 9,000 individual pieces recovered from the 1996 crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800.

The remains from the passenger flight, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean killing all 230 aboard, are housed at the National Transportation Safety Board’s Training Facility, located up the road from GW’s academic research facilities. The facility trains accident investigators and issues safety recommendations.

In the case of TWA Flight 800, the insurance company offered the recovered remains back to the government for use in training exercises. According to Paul Schuda, associate managing director of the NTSB Training Facility, nearly all of the wreckage was recovered, but was not all used in the investigation.

“We recovered 95 to 98 percent of the wreckage, but only 40 percent was germane to the investigation… recovery took 11 months and reconstruction took 10 months concurrent with recovery,” said Schuda.

The reconstruction resulted in the 110 foot-long section of the Boeing 747 now on display in the training facility’s hangar. The remains are not open to the public, but media, educational audiences and victims’ families can view it.

Walking inside, visitors are first confronted with the image of the gutted, destroyed aircraft being held together by a chicken wire net. On the side are steps leading to the passenger cabin, where oxygen masks are still visible and flowers left by victims’ family members lay on the charred seats.

The NTSB investigation concluded that old, brittle wiring was ultimately responsible for the accident. When it short-circuited, it caused an explosion in the fuel tank that then rippled through the rest of the aircraft, eventually bringing it down in the waters near East Moriches, New York.

Roughly six and a half years ago, Congress allotted money to the University to build the facility that houses TWA Flight 800. The University owns the space, but the NTSB occupies it under the terms of an exclusive 20-year lease, Paul Schuda said.

Schuda said that although the NTSB issues safety recommendations, it has almost no regulatory authority. The training center offers 20 courses a year, but are not considered GW classes, and consist mostly of aviation industry professionals.

The flagship course, basic aviation accident investigation, is two weeks long and teaches skills such as how to look at fractures, corrosion and metal fatigue so that investigators can determine both the order and direction in which systems fail. Other courses provide training on survivability factors and accident site photography.

By law, Schuda said the NTSB must investigate every aviation accident that occurs on U.S. soil. The rules for international accidents are somewhat different – the country in which the accident occurred is responsible for the investigation, while the U.S. retains the right to participate if part of the craft was manufactured domestically.

“We average about 1,500 to 1,600 small accidents per year and a few major accidents,” Schuda siad.

In addition to the remains of TWA 800, the NTSB also has wreckage from a Cessna 210 Centurion, a Jetstream 41 and a V-tail Bonanza.

Schuda said that family members of victims stop by occasionally to view the TWA flight, but it has now become a less frequent occurrence.

Working at the NTSB can often be difficult, as tragedy is the factor that fuels its existence. Schuda said that this can be particularly distressing.

“One of the unfortunate things about working for the NTSB is that we’re a reactive agency. When you start having four or five accidents, then we can say, ‘you have a safety problem,’ and then people listen to us,” Schuda said.

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