Editor’s note: James Sanders, a former police officer turned investigative reporter, co-writes this report with Jack Cashill. Sanders is the author of “The Downing of TWA Flight 800″ and “Altered Evidence,” among other books.
Retired United Airlines pilot and veteran flight investigator Ray Lahr watched last weekend’s Fox-TV special on TWA Flight 800 with a wry smile.
Although the fed-friendly report showed select bits of the notorious CIA-created animation, it did not show the heart of that animation, what Lahr calls “the ridiculous zoom-climb scenario.” The report did not even mention the zoom-climb. Lahr was not all that surprised. The zoom-climb had been quietly shrinking for years.
Four years ago, the FBI had premiered the magical zoom-climb animation to great effect. The CIA video argued that when the nose of the plane broke off – due of course to a spontaneous explosion in the center wing tank – the plane pitched up and climbed like a rocket for at least 3,200 feet. According to the CIA, the eyewitnesses did not see a missile but “a plane in crippled flight,” climbing skyward. The FBI further clouded the issue by adding the element of burning Jet A fuel as another possible source of eyewitness confusion.
One can not overestimate the importance of the FBI/CIA animation. It removed the most conspicuous obstacle to a government rewrite of the TWA 800 crash, the eyewitness accounts, and paved the way for a sustainable cover-up. CNN’s garbled reporting of the FBI press conference on that same date shows just how successful the government was in discrediting these accounts:
The FBI said the 14-minute tape showed how all 244 witnesses to the crash saw the breakup of the Boeing 747 in the seconds after it exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, and not the explosion itself.
What some witnesses thought was a missile hitting the plane was actually burning, leaking fuel from the jet after its front part had already broken off, FBI officials said.
According to the FBI, witnesses saw the disintegrating plane well after its center fuel tank blew up. They heard the sound of the blast seconds later since sound travels more slowly than light, making them believe they were seeing the beginning of the crash when in fact they were watching its end, the agency said.
Never mind that there were 736 eyewitnesses, that the key eyewitnesses all saw an ascending streak long before they saw an explosion or heard it, or even that the CIA manufactured the most critical eyewitness statement of all, this animation gave the FBI sufficient cover to call off its criminal investigation sixteen months after the July 1996 crash. The New York Times, like every other major media outlet, accepted the FBI/CIA scenario uncritically. It did not even question the inexplicable CIA involvement. Opined the all too trusting Times:
The F.B.I. has been justly criticized in recent years for erratic and often furtive behavior, first with the Branch Davidians in Waco and then at the Ruby Ridge standoff. This time it appears to have acted with admirable thoroughness and openness.
The fact that The Times confused the order of Ruby Ridge and Waco is the least problematic part of this editorial. In a paragraph, this once-proud newspaper, the newspaper that once had risked its existence to publish the purloined Pentagon Papers, now also confused “openness” with obstruction and fully signaled its blind acceptance of government authority.
If The Times and others were prepared to sign off on the most brazen cover-up in American political history, Ray Lahr was not about to. Like virtually every other aviator in America, he watched the CIA animation in stunned disbelief.
This scenario was impossible, and he knew it.
“Anyone familiar with this type of aircraft knows intuitively that when a third of the fuselage is blown away,” says Lahr, “the aircraft will be so out of balance that it will immediately stall and fall out of the sky.”
But Lahr was not one to rely on intuition. He was determined to get at the hard data used to create the flight path study, a quest that was about to turn the mild-mannered pilot into an activist. Nor was he alone. Hundreds of aviators and engineers hammered away at the government scenario through all available channels and forced its agents into a gradual retreat, if not yet into a rout.
In response to pressure, The NTSB would eventually release its own much more modest animated version of the zoom-climb.
“They got smart when the CIA got laughed out of town by aviators,” observed retired USN Cmdr. William Donaldson. “The NTSB figured they’d get away with half of it. So they said it climbed 1,700 feet. It didn’t.”
To be sure, the NTSB animation appears to address some of the concerns raised by the CIA version. Instead of showing a climb with the plane’s wings level, the NTSB video shows the roll that would be expected from the loss of the nose. The NTSB’s animated Flight 800, unlike its CIA cousin, corkscrews in the sky in great sweeping loops, then noses over and falls more or less straight down.
By the time of the second NTSB “sunshine” hearing in August 2000, the NTSB was diminishing the significance of the zoom-climb even more. Asked NTSB Chairman Jim Hall of staffer Dr. David Mayer in a telling exchange, “If you could show that the airplane did not climb after the nose departed, would that change your analysis?”
“No, sir,” Doctor Mayer replied. “Though we believe the plane climbed after the nose departed … our analysis is not dependent on it.”
They believe the plane climbed? Their analysis is not dependent on it? This, from the same expert who testified an hour earlier that “We studied all the witness reports. … They are consistent with crippled flight not a missile.” There is a problem here. If the plane did not climb, the NTSB cannot dismiss the eyewitness accounts as mere confusion, and the whole cover-up collapses.
Still, these refinements and retrenchments did not pacify Ray Lahr. Indeed, they increased his concerns. If the data used were the same in both videos, if the process were scientific, the animations should have shown the exact same flight path. The only thing that might have changed is the camera angle.
If, however, the videos were created merely to misdirect the media and the public, then their producers would have few qualms about altering them to quiet inquisitive aviation professionals like Ray Lahr.
Activism does not come easily to Lahr. Comfortably retired in Malibu, Lahr had never before thought to challenge his government. Like many a veteran of World War II – and none looks younger than the still boyish Lahr – he has long trusted the aviation establishment that has helped him prosper. When he began his private inquiries into the TWA 800 crash, he expected the government to reciprocate that trust. It has not.
In fact, for all their storied “openness,” the Feds have blocked Lahr and other independent investigators at every turn. This obstructionism has led to an increasing exasperated series of letters from the NTSB to an impressively determined Lahr.
What Lahr has been requesting through the Freedom of Information Act are the calculations used by the NTSB to determine how TWA 800 could climb “several thousand feet with the nose blown off.” Not surprisingly, the NTSB has rejected Lahr’s request for information. Its agents cite the “proprietary” nature of the data and the NTSB’s lack of authority to disclose Boeing “trade secrets.” This, Lahr has argued, is nonsense. The NTSB had already released the pertinent data from Boeing, now part of the public record and no longer considered proprietary.
According to the Boeing data, the aircraft weighed 574,000 lbs. before nose separation. The nose weighed 79,394 lbs. The center-of-gravity was at 21.1 percent MAC before nose separation. After nose separation it was at 57.8 percent MAC. This means that the center-of-gravity moved from about one foot in front of the center-of-lift to about 11 behind it, a profound shift.
The sudden shift created a huge nose-up torque of about 6,000,000 ft-lbs. As Lahr notes, “It would be like putting both people on the same side of a teeter-totter.” The aircraft would have pitched through 45 degrees in two seconds and would have kept right on going. According to Lahr, the most the 747 could have climbed before stalling at 25 degrees and going into free fall was about 200 feet.
No, Lahr was not asking for any additional data from Boeing. As he told the NTSB, “The Boeing data already released demonstrates conclusively that it was impossible for TWA 800 to climb several thousand feet with the nose blown off.”
Besides, Boeing had never been a willing participant in this whole propaganda exercise. Although the narrator of the CIA animation claims that the zoom-climb scenario is “consistent with information provided by NTSB investigators and Boeing engineers,” Boeing immediately disowned it. Consider Boeing’s initial response to the CIA animation:
Boeing was not involved in the production of the video shown today, nor have we had the opportunity to obtain a copy or fully understand the data used to create it. … The video’s explanation of the eyewitness observations can be best assessed by the eyewitnesses themselves.
As to eyewitnesses, not one of the 736 official eyewitnesses reported seeing the plane climb after the initial explosion. What they did see was perhaps best captured by Air National Guard helicopter pilot, Major Fritz Meyer:
When that airplane blew up, it immediately began falling. It came right out of the sky. From the first moment it was going down. It never climbed. The thought that this aircraft could climb was laughable.
Curiously, the CIA video attributes its flight path mapping to “radar tracking data and eyewitness reports.” Yet, as we have noted before, the radar data suggests an increase in speed, impossible in a climb, and the only eyewitness report that supports the CIA position was fully manufactured.
Lahr was led to believe that the government’s conclusions about the climb were based on a computer program. “If that is correct,” wrote Lahr to the NTSB, “then there is a mistake in the computer program, or there was a mistake entering data into the computer program (garbage in – garbage out).”
The method used to compute this climb, Lahr contended, was not revealed to the other parties to the investigation, nor at the public hearing, nor as a part of the written accident report. “That,” contended Lahr, “is not an acceptable accident investigation procedure.” Lahr should know. For many years, he investigated aviation accidents on behalf of ALPA, the Airline Pilots’ Association.
“The only way we can discover where the mistake was made,” volunteered Lahr, “is to sit down and review the process.”
The NTSB has not taken Lahr up on his offer. Instead, its executives have stalled, bluffed and passed him from one to another.
Lahr’s most recent correspondence has been with NTSB general counsel Ronald Battocchi. “You may wonder why I persist,” writes Lahr in his opening. “The reason is quite simple. It was physically impossible for TWA 800 to make that climb.”
The absence of any reference to that climb, visual or audio, in the Fox report amuses Lahr but does not appease him. He and hundreds of others will continue to persist until the case breaks open. It is beginning to.
“There is no need to make this a court case,” writes the ever-reasonable Lahr to Battocchi, “The answer is so simple. Let’s get all of the interested parties, including Boeing, around a conference table, and let’s hash this thing out.”
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