“This is the kind of case the Board has never had to deal with-a head-on collision between the credibility of a flight crew versus the airworthiness of the aircraft.” NTSB Investigator-in-Charge Leslie Dean Kampschror
On April 4, 1979, a Boeing 727 with 82 passengers and a crew of 7 rolled over and plummeted from an altitude of 39,000 feet to within seconds of crashing were it not for the crew’s actions to save the plane. The cause of the unexplained dive was the subject of one of the longest NTSB investigations at that time.
While the crew’s efforts to save TWA 841 were initially hailed as heroic, that all changed when safety inspectors found twenty-one minutes of the thirty-minute cockpit voice recorder tape blank. The captain of the flight, Harvey “Hoot” Gibson, subsequently came under suspicion for deliberately erasing the tape in an effort to hide incriminating evidence. The voice recorder was never evaluated for any deficiencies.
From that moment on, the investigation was focused on the crew to the exclusion of all other evidence. It was an investigation based on rumors, innuendos, and speculation. Eventually the NTSB, despite sworn testimony to the contrary, blamed the crew for the incident by having improperly manipulated the controls, leading to the dive.
This is the story of an NTSB investigation gone awry and one pilot’s decades-long battle to clear his name.
When TWA 841 departed JFK on April 4, 1979, no one onboard had any idea of the drama that would soon unfold. One passenger, travelling with her husband, wrote in a journal about the smooth takeoff. She had been keeping a personal journal of her travels to share with her children on her return. She documented everything down to the most inconsequential detail such as her ears popping as the aircraft climbed. Days, weeks, and years later, after TWA 841 had become the subject of one of the longest NTSB investigations in the agency’s history, investigators would scrutinize every minute of the flight in a similarly detailed manner. Much like a criminal investigation, the movements, actions, and whereabouts of each crew member were documented. Routine tasks such as when and where the meal trays were exchanged between the cockpit and cabin crew would take on added significance. Unraveling the mystery of TWA 841 was a monumental puzzle that needed to be solved. But unlike any accident investigation before or since, the same evidence investigators would use against the crew would be used by others to challenge the theories put forth by Boeing and the NTSB. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to which version is correct.