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Tuesday, November 2, 1999 Published at 09:48 GMT

World: Americas

Experts debunk flight rumours

TWA 800: Experts recreated the fatal explosion

What caused Flight 990 to crash?

Nobody knows yet, but it's not stopping the rumour mill.

The loss of flight 990
Some say the disaster is eerily similar to the losses of TWA 800 in 1996 and Swissair 111 in 1998.

But while all three flights left from New York's JFK airport and crashed in the North Atlantic, experts say that is where the similarities end.

JFK airport authorities have moved to dispel speculation that the airport was somehow responsible, describing the losses as a tragic coincidence.

Bob Kelly of JFK Airport: "You should feel comfortable flying from this airport"
And David Learmount of Flight International magazine said that the JFK airport theory had to be discounted - considering some 10,000 airliners safely use the North Atlantic corridor every month.

"I think we are getting something of a Bermuda Triangle idea coming out here. I think that it is totally false and misleading because all of these accidents in this area are different," he told the BBC.

[ image: Flight data recorder: Vital but not infallible]
Flight data recorder: Vital but not infallible
Danny Fyne, founder of the Professional Pilot's Rumour Network website, told BBC News Online that the crash had been a major issue on the site's bulletin board.

Some pilots have already used the site to criticise the news media for turning to instant pundits expounding any and every theory.

"On the PPRuNe website there is speculation, some of it feeble and some more likely to be plausible," said Mr Fyne, himself a Boeing 767 pilot.

"But I must emphasise that it is just that, pure speculation based on the known facts.

"The only similarities so far are the fact that they all originated from JFK.

"But that in itself is not surprising considering that a very large proportion of trans-Atlantic flights start or pass through JFK."

So are there any similarities between the incidents?

Catastrophic descent

Flight 990 suffered a sudden and catastrophic loss of altitude and the rate of descent, 14,000ft in around 30 seconds, was so great that pilots say that the airliner must have been in one piece.

[ image: Swissair disaster: Airliner hit North Atlantic]
Swissair disaster: Airliner hit North Atlantic
"Those rates of descent indicate a powered descent," said Mr Fyne.

"A free-falling object would probably reach a terminal velocity in the region of 120-200 mph which equates to about 10,000-15,000 ft/min."

This points to different circumstances to the TWA 800 incident.

While the cause has never been found, experts know there was an explosion in the central fuel tank of the Boeing 747, causing it to break up mid-air.

That meant the rate of descent was slower, and the explosion also disconnected equipment transmitting the aircraft's position to traffic controllers.

These circumstances appear to suggest that Flight 990 may not have suffered a similar explosion.

So what about similarities to Swissair 111?

David Learmount of Flight International: "The Bermuda Triangle is totally misleading"
The last radio contact between Flight 990 and JFK control was at 1.47am Eastern Standard Time, three minutes before the plunge into the ocean.

In the case of the Swissair incident, the crew of the MD-11 airliner declared an emergency as smoke filled the cockpit and attempted to pilot the plane to a suitable airport.

Communication was lost six minutes before the aircraft hit the ocean - again indicating a slower rate of descent.

The Lauda Air link

However there is another case that has to be looked at, according to David Learmount.

[ image: Lauda Air disaster: Same model as EgyptAir 767]
Lauda Air disaster: Same model as EgyptAir 767
In 1991 a Lauda Air 767 - reportedly the sister aircraft of the EgyptAir airliner - crashed with the loss of its 223 passengers and crew.

"The spectre of that incident still hangs over this aircraft," said Mr Learmount.

"A completely uncommanded and theoretically impossible action took place when a thrust reverser [used during landing] reversed and the aircraft went into a terribly steep descent.

Danny Fyne agreed: "The engines on the EgyptAir 767 were made by the same manufacturer as those on the Lauda Air 767 but modifications were made to prevent it occurring again.

"A thrust reverser deployment in cruise flight would be extremely difficult to control but it is possible."

But he stressed: "We will have to wait until the investigators recover the flight data and cockpit voice recorders and release their preliminary reports for the truth.

"To speculate is human nature. But to sensationalise is not acceptable."

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