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Father of TWA Flight 800 victim finally sees advocacy pay off

James Hurd Jr., father of TWA Flight 800

James Hurd Jr., father of TWA Flight 800 victim, visits memorial at Smith Point Park in 2003. Credit: Freelance/Pablo Garcia Corradi

More than two decades after the crash of TWA Flight 800 took his son's life, James Hurd Jr.'s persistence has paid off in the form of a safety measure required on all Boeing and Airbus planes by the end of the year.

Hurd became fluent in aviation policy after his son, James Hurd III, 29, was one of 230 people killed when Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island’s South Shore on July 17, 1996, minutes after taking off from Kennedy Airport. 

For years Hurd, a Maryland mechanic, has advocated on behalf of the crash victims and their loved ones, at times testifying on Capitol Hill, pushing for the government to implement changes to aircraft to prevent fuel tank explosions like the one believed to have caused the downing of Flight 800, a Boeing 747.

A July 2008 FAA ruling required Boeing and Airbus, the only manufacturers to use the center-fuel tank design, to retrofit  their aircraft. The rule affected about 2,730 Airbus and Boeing aircraft — built after 1991 — and all similarly designed jets built in the future. The deadline for the last of those changes is Dec. 26, 2018, and the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday said it expects all affected aircraft to comply.

For families of crash victims, it's been a long time coming. Still, as Hurd readies for his annual visit to Smith Point County Park on Tuesday for the 22nd memorial ceremony, he is feeling resolve not resentment.

“It’s a long time, but at least they did it,” Hurd, 73, said. “It was accomplished.”

Airbus said it has fully complied with the requirement to provide the necessary kits to airlines for them to modify the fuel systems to meet the required standard. 

“With regard to any newly delivered Airbus aircraft, these are all fully compliant with the requirements already,” Clay McConnell, a company spokesman, said Friday.

A Boeing spokesman on Saturday said the manufacturer "has complied with all relevant regulatory guidance."

Neither manufacturer nor the FAA could quantify the number of aircraft affected.

The FAA has required more than 300 changes to eliminate potential ignition sources, such as rerouting wiring in the tanks, which also had been cited as a factor in the crash, and more frequent inspections. No plane has been brought down by a midair fuel-tank explosion since 1996, the agency said.

Part of the reason these regulations took so long is because the investigation into what caused Flight 800 to explode lasted years. Speculation at the time included a bomb or a terrorist’s missile. Cost also was a major factor in safety changes.

Hurd, who is vice president of the Families of TWA Flight 800 Association, said members of the airline industry would argue the cost of refitting aircraft was too expensive. Hurd, whose group secured a seat on the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) as policy was being debated, said the airlines were initially too concerned with cost-benefit analysis and not enough with adding safety features.

“That’s the thing,” he said. “How can you say my child isn’t worth an investigation let alone 230 people from all over the world?”

Still, Hurd said, he allowed reason, not emotion, to guide his actions. At his first ARAC meeting in the early 2000s at an FAA technical center in Atlantic City, Hurd was among representatives from the FAA, National Transportation Safety Board, airlines and aviation trade groups. Hurd said he was the last to introduce himself at the start of the meeting.

“I got up and I said, ‘My name is Jim Hurd, I lost my son in Flight 800 and I am here to be your conscience,’ and I sat down,” he said. His presence, he said, and that of many other petitioners over the past 22 years, helped influence policy.

“If you’re persistent, you’re going to get it done,” Hurd said. “And that’s what I did. I was persistent.”

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