4x17 and 4x18
Mulder and Scully try to piece together the facts concerning the death of an old
acquaintance in a bizarre airplane crash.
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
For details on traffic radar, as used by police, go to
For a more in depth look at radar imaging, as used by the space shuttle, check out the
WebPhysics page on the subject at
Finally, for a thorough list of Air Traffic Control information on the Web, go to
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
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.
This page was last updated: 09/05/98
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