Flight 800 Paper Trail

The Boeing company is being accused of withholding critical information that may have prevented a number of plane crashes over the past twenty years, including that of TWA flight 800 off the coast of New York's Long Island.

Three years ago, CBS News Correspondent Jacqueline Adams reports, flight 800 was blown apart by a center fuel tank explosion; all 230 people on board died. But only this past June did Boeing, the plane's manufacturer, admit to a 1980 study that examined problems in those fuel tanks.

Joe Lynchner, a relative of victims of that crash, says in light of the revelation, "To say that I'm angry and indignant is the understatement of the century."

The families of flight 800 crash victims claim the four-volume report is proof that Boeing knew its fuel tank design was flawed: that even with insulation, fuel tanks could overheat when placed above air conditioning units.

"To have Boeing hide this information from the traveling world and intentionally mislead the investigation of TWA 800 is a total travesty of justice," Lynchner says.

Boeing, however, says the 1980 study isn't relevant because it looked at the E-4B jet (a military plane), and not the civilian 747.

Russ Young, spokesman for Boeing Commercial Airplane Group, said Saturday that differences between the E-4B and the 747 made the report largely extraneous to the TWA investigation.

The E-4B, for example, has four air conditioning units under the fuselage, compared with three in a standard 747, and the air conditioners often run for long periods in the E-4B while it is on the ground, Young said. The E-4B also burns a different fuel.

Still, the National Transportation Safety Board was "dismayed" and "displeased" at not getting the study earlier. NTSB investigators told aides to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that the report could have directed them to the fuel tanks immediately in the flight 800 case, rather than wasting months searching for evidence of a missile attack or bomb.

Grassley is chairman of the subcommittee that oversees airline disaster investigations.

And critics charge this is the second time Boeing failed to reveal this study. The first was back in 1990, when a center fuel tank explosion killed eight people in a Philippine Airlines 737.

"If this study had been available," Grassley thinks, "there would have been time to retrofit aircraft so that the possibility the TWA 800 crash wouldn't have taken place in 1996."

The General Accounting Office, which conducts congressional probes, has been interviewing employees at Boeing and the Air Force and has found no evidence of an intentional cover-up, Grassley aides said Saturday.

Ironically, it was just this week that federal investigators ordered massive changes to make sure no fuel tank ever explodes again. Not only will old aircraft be retrofitted -- at a cost of $170 million -- but new aircraft must be radically redesigned and maintained