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TWA Flight 800

Trans World Airlines Flight 800, a Boeing 747–131 en route from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to Charles De Gaulle International Airport in Paris, exploded in a fireball on 17 July 1996 at 8:31 P.M. All 230 passengers, as well as the 18 crew, were killed. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which was responsible for the investigation, determined that the probable cause of the crash was an explosion in the center wing fuel tank that had a “flammable mixture of fuel/air” in the tank, although the source of ignition could not be determined by the investigators. They theorized that “a short circuit” outside the tank allowed “excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system.” These and other details were included in the NTSB’s final report.

Multiple witnesses, however, claimed to have seen trails that resembled those made by a missile. Many reported seeing objects “streaking” toward the aircraft. Investigators later explained those “sightings” as after-the-fact falling debris. Above all, NTSB investigators seemed to have difficulty identifying the “red residue” on some of the recovered seats— residue not typical of an internal explosion, but rather of (depending on the expert) a “pass through” missile’s exhaust motors or an outside explosion. Only a few months after the crash, James Sanders, a former police officer and investigative journalist, published The Downing of Flight 800, which contended that a U.S. Navy missile, fired from an Aegis cruiser on exercises in the waters below Flight 800, had accidentally brought down the aircraft. Among Sanders’s claims:

• A “bullet-like” entrance and exit wound in the aircraft cabin
• Thirty-four independent witnesses to a missile-type streak
• Photographic “proof” of the missile
• An “original” Federal Aviation Administration radar report that indicated an “unidentified object” approaching TWA 800, which the “FBI tried to suppress”
• Confirmation of navy exercises below
• The by-then famous “red residue”

Later, in 2001, Ian Williams Goddard, in Ubiquity (a magazine for self-touted “mega-IQs”), analyzed the tests performed by the NTSB, and concluded that the agency had precluded the question of whether or not the impact could have been caused by a missile by adopting test criteria that excluded missile explosions outside a certain proximity. Goddard claimed that the evidence associated with the hole showed fragments “moving downward” and striking TWA 800 behind the center wing tank. Goddard, like Sanders, makes a case for “evidence tampering” by the investigators.

Goddard had been the lead “missile” advisor to Pierre Salinger, the former ABC newsman who on 8 November 1996 claimed to have evidence that the navy accidentally shot down TWA 800. Ironically, Salinger offered yet another view of the explosion— rather than a missile, Salinger claimed it was a kinetic energy or continuous rod–type weapon. Of course, that undercut Goddard’s theory and, while the effect of a kinetic energy weapon may have been to cut the aircraft in half, it would not leave the “red residue” claimed by Sanders and others.

The evidence assembled by Goddard and Sanders, as well as many others, appears convincing . . . until compared to each other. Indeed, so far the greatest single argument against a missile theory of any one of the conspiracy theorists is the evidence produced by another. For example, in Sanders’s scenario, the navy fired a BQM-74E drone missile, which was to be the “target” for a test involving the Aegis antimissile/antiaircraft defensive systems. When the navy fired a Standard antimissile missile, it failed to acquire the drone, and instead acquired TWA 800, but, lacking a warhead, simply “passed through” the aircraft, slicing it in half prior to an explosion some eight seconds later. This “pass through” missile was, in Sanders’s explanation, what accounted for the “red residue” on the seats. The strength of Sanders’s story is that it eliminates shoulder-fired “Stinger” missiles that might be used by terrorists because of both the radar signature and the range limitations of the Stinger. But, according to Sanders, the FBI encouraged talk of Stinger missiles to throw investigators off the trail of the real culprit, a rogue navy Standard missile.

However, Ian Goddard maintains that several witnesses had reported seeing the same missile trail, in virtually the same spot if their viewpoints were adjusted for their land location. So far, Goddard’s theory does not contradict Sanders’s. But his evidence of outside penetration behind the center fuel tank is starkly contrasted with Sanders’s claim that the fuselage was penetrated by the Standard missile in front of the fuel tank. Sanders more accurately accounts for the odd separation of the front part of the aircraft from the rear, but Goddard more accurately explains the cause of a midair explosion. Again, however, there is not radar data to support either a pass-through missile or a missile that exploded outside the rear of TWA 800.

The NTSB failed to address either of these allegations, instead testing Stinger missiles and concluding (some would say, obviously) that the Stingers did not have the range to reach TWA 800. Thus, mysterious reports about “escape boats” that might have carried ground-based terrorists cannot be reconciled with a “navy-did-it-accidentally” theory. (Both Sanders and Goddard point out that there were previous suspicious explosions, such as Pan Am 103, which blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, leading some to link TWA 800 with those “attacks” as well.)

But the NTSB also failed to consider other theories that would have proved equally damaging to the allegations of Sanders and Goddard. Elmer Barr, for example, contends that a faulty forward door not only caused the TWA 800 crash, but also several other (in his view, unexplained) crashes. Barr does not attempt to explain the “red residue,” and makes no bones about it, saying he is not a chemist. However, his timeline of the front-door collapse tracks more closely with the events of TWA 800 than either the Sanders pass-through missile or the Goddard outside-explosion scenario.

Two things can be stated with certainty as of 2002 about the TWA 800 crash: there are a number of unexplained aspects of this case (as there are in every case), and so far, no single piece of physical evidence or uncorrupted firsthand sworn testimony has been produced to indict the otherwise admittedly tenuous NTSB finding. Theories such as Barr’s are intriguing, but again do not explain other odd elements of the case. One theory seems to be easily ruled out—that of a terrorist using a Stinger missile to down the plane. And, in the wake of the arrest of the London “shoe-bomber,” it would be worthwhile for the NTSB or FBI to revisit the cause of the explosion as perhaps involving such a terrorist strike, as that tactic was not considered at the time of the explosion.