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Tempus Fugit/Max
 Science File Information:
  • In this episode, Flight 549, a commercial airliner crashes mysteriously in upstate New York. Supposedly, it hit the ground completely vertically (nose first); Scully rationalizes this occurrence by saying that a "rapid depressurization" in the air over the crash site, such as a "wind rotor" could have forced the plane down in such a manner. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a wind rotor is "a vortex with a horizontal axis of rotation perpendicular to the direction of flow" that usually occurs due to undulations in the air on the lee side of a mountain (the side of the mountain sheltered from the wind). I guess this kind of vortex could possibly swing a large jet straight down into the earth, but the likelihood seems very small. (Besides, maybe I missed the obvious, but I didn't notice any mountains near the crash, did you?)

    The unlikelihood of a wind rotor downing an aircraft didn't stop Boeing from using it as an argument in their defense in the 1991 crash of Flight 585 in Colorado Springs. Read more about it in Byron Acohido's Pulitzer Prize-winning article at http://www.pulitzer.org/year/1997/beat-reporting/works/737-2/.
    If you're looking for scientific answers to your meteorological questions, on the other hand, check out WEATHER WONDER at http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/6346/.

  • Since the beginning of The X-Files, the writers of the show have used themes and events plucked from recent headlines. In this case, the crash of fictional Flight 549, and its subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, seems all too similar to the tragic crash of TWA Flight 800. Although many theories as to the cause of this accident have been put forth, the NTSB has not yet reached a final verdict. Piecing together what happened at an accident site is a very thorough and painstaking process; some investigations can take several years.

    The Discovery Channel put together an online article on plane crash detectives that follows the investigation of Flight 800 as an example. If you're interested in the forensic science following an aircraft crash, go to http://www.discovery.com/DCO/doc/1012/world/wings/crash/plane1.html.

  • Mulder and Scully eventually deduce that Max Fenig, an acquaintance of Mulder's who perished in the crash, was carrying some kind of radioactive package (they note radiation burns on his fellow passengers). From letters that Fenig sent to his friend Sharon Graffia, the agents find out that he had worked for a time at the Rocky Flats plant near Denver, Colorado. Rocky Flats used to be a nuclear weapons production facility, but now it is devoted entirely to environmental cleanup of the area after the shutdown of weapons production at the site. Scully proposes that Fenig could have had access to plutonium or other nuclear weapons ingredients, and that such radioactive substances must have been in his possession while on the plane.

    To see the enviromental measures that the U.S. Department of Energy is taking in the cleanup at the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site, go to http://www.rfets.gov/.

  • The head of the NTSB investigation points out some of his findings to the agents: the door of the plane was ripped from its hinges in flight. Looking at close-ups of the door manifold, he points out that the tiny fractures around the door seem to be due to cyclic loading. Basically, the door was shaken from the plane in a matter of seconds, leaving evidence that implied a structural failure due to fatigue supposedly brought on from years of use. (Only problem: the plane was relatively new.)

    To learn more about fatigue and cyclic loading, check out http://www.macsch.com/tech/wp3.html.

  • Mulder and Scully have quite a bit of trouble trying to figure out exactly what happened in the air the night that Flight 549 crashed. Their only clues reside in the testimony of a USAF Air Traffic Controller who remembers the events as they unfolded on his radar scope. Almost everybody knows generally what radar is, and how it is used to track incoming aircraft at airports, to catch drivers who are breaking the speed limit, and to image terrain and weather for newscasts and scientific research...but do you really know how radar works?

    To read about how weather radar works, go to http://www.tco.com/weather/how.htm.
    For details on traffic radar, as used by police, go to http://www.engsoc.carleton.ca/~iscwong/appndxc.htm.
    For a more in depth look at radar imaging, as used by the space shuttle, check out the WebPhysics page on the subject at http://webphysics.iupui.edu/152/SAR/SAR.html.
    Finally, for a thorough list of Air Traffic Control information on the Web, go to http://www.xnet.com/~crisj/links.html.

  • In the aftermath of the crash investigation, the agents watch a home video belonging to Max Fenig that asserts aliens have visited Earth many times. He claims that space travel isn't that hard to believe because, for one thing, scientists in Finland have discovered anti-gravity. Well, actually, some scientists in Finland did claim that they had produced anti-gravity in an experiment, but then the head scientist retracted his claim, and that's where the story begins. If you're intrigued, read the article in Wired Magazine that's referenced below.

    To read about the strange retraction of the Finnish claim by one of the team members, go to http://www.padrak.com/ine/NEN_4_7_4.html. To read the March 1998 Wired story, including an interview with head scientist Eugene Podkletnov, go to http://www.wired.com/wired/6.03/antigravity.html.

 File #:
4x17 and 4x18

Basic Plot:
Mulder and Scully try to piece together the facts concerning the death of an old acquaintance in a bizarre airplane crash.

Synopsis URLs:
Synopsis @ Official X-Files Site
Synopsis @ Deep Background

Title means:
"Tempus Fugit" is a Latin phrase that literally means "time flies."
"Max" refers to the character of Max Fenig, the passenger on Flight 549 whose carry-on luggage proved fatal for all aboard.

End of science file.
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