On Monday, Dec. 15, retired United Airlines Capt. Ray Lahr takes his case against the National Transportation Safety Board to court, the last adversary this unlikely activist ever expected to face.
Lahr has no illusion about the challenge he faces, but he is focusing his attack on the most vulnerable point of the NTSB’s defense – what he calls “the zoom-climb scenario” – and he has marshaled some impressive forces to help breach it.
The government first advanced this scenario six years earlier – Nov. 18, 1997, to be precise. That was the day that the FBI closed the criminal case on TWA Flight 800 and did so in a dramatic fashion. It was also the day that forever changed Lahr’s life.
To negate the stubborn testimony of some 270 FBI eyewitnesses who had sworn they saw a flaming, smoke-trailing, zigzagging object ascend, arc over and destroy TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, the FBI showed a video prepared by the CIA.
The video had all the grace of a Cold War jeremiad on atomic fallout. The music was ominous, the narration overbearing, the graphics cheesy and anachronistic. “The following program was produced by the Central Intelligence Agency,” said the narrator at the outset, with more pride in ownership than seems right for any government agency, let alone a secret one.
The narrator explained there had been three major theories as to what brought down TWA 800: bomb, missile or mechanical failure. Of particular concern to investigators were reports “from dozens of eyewitnesses” who saw objects in the sky usually described as flares or fireworks.
“Was it a missile?” asks the narrator? “Did foreign terrorists destroy the aircraft?” The answer is quick in coming: No – “What the witnesses saw was a Boeing 747 in various stages of crippled flight.” The CIA wanted the audience to come away with one understanding. And this was stated explicitly on screen: “The Eyewitnesses Did Not See a Missile.”
The video climaxed with an animation purporting to show what the eyewitnesses did see. According to the CIA, the nose of the aircraft blew off from an internal explosion. “The explosion, although very loud was not seen by any known eyewitness.” Not one.
TWA Flight 800 then allegedly “pitched up abruptly and climbed several thousand feet from its last recorded altitude of about 13,800 feet to a maximum altitude of about 17,000 feet.” The CIA video claimed this was what the eyewitnesses had seen – not missiles, but a rocketing, nose-less 747 trailing fire.
Ray Lahr, comfortably retired in Malibu, had been following the investigation into TWA Flight 800 from the day it happened on July 17, 1996. He had a professional interest. For the last 20 of his “32 wonderful years” with United Airlines, he had served as a West Coast safety representative for the Air Line Pilots Association. In that position, he had participated in eight major crash investigations, all of which, in Lahr’s opinion, had been “expertly managed” by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Soon after the TWA 800 crash, however, he realized that the open, honest process he had known no longer existed. Although the FBI would never declare the incident a crime, its agents were illegally controlling the investigation. NTSB investigators were forced to leak information as there was no other way to surface it. When a trusted colleague showed Lahr one bit of leaked evidence, an FAA radar tape of an unknown object traveling at 1,200 knots “and converging with TWA 800,” Lahr’s interest in the case was definitely piqued.
Lahr, however, trusted his government implicitly. He owed his career to it, and an excellent career it was. He had joined the U.S. Navy cadet program a week out of high school at the height of World War II and got his wings in 1946. He hired on with United Airlines in 1953 and made captain in 1965. In 1975, he received the Air Safety award from ALPA, its highest honor. An engineer by training, Lahr also designed and patented the Jeppesen computer, which is widely used by airline pilots.
Until Nov. 18, 1997, Lahr was content to dabble in Southern California real estate and perfect his tennis game. Life had treated him, his wife Jacqueline, and his three children well. If there were a less likely candidate to become an “anti-government” activist and “conspiracy theorist,” it is hard to imagine who that candidate might be.
And then Lahr saw the video. He could not believe what he was seeing. The video struck him as false in every detail. For all of his side ventures and hobbies, Lahr admits, “My real interest is in gravity.” It had been for a long time. Until he began his safety work with ALPA, Lahr had been working extensively at UCLA on a gravity research project. From the moment he saw the video, he believed its zoom-climb hypothesis to be “impossible,” and he set out to prove it.
Ray Lahr went looking for answers. He wanted to know what calculations the NTSB and the CIA had used to come to their conclusion that TWA Flight 800 zoomed upwards 3,200 feet after it lost its nose, and he was entirely willing to work within the system. Lahr began by exchanging letters with NTSB Chairman Jim Hall – 14 in all. Despite the NTSB’s public mission, Hall proved adamant about refusing to release any information.
Lahr tried to communicate with Dennis Crider, the NTSB technician who worked singly on the project, but Crider stonewalled him. In fact, Crider kept his data to himself, a violation, says Lahr, “of all of the rules of accident investigation.” Without independent verification, the data offered pilots and engineers no clue as to how to deal with comparable incidents in the future.
Ever patient, Lahr submitted separate Freedom of Information Act requests to the NTSB and the CIA. The CIA told him it had used data and conclusions provided by the NTSB. The NTSB told him that it could not release information because it was proprietary to Boeing. And Boeing, from day one, had testily distanced itself from the conclusions drawn by the CIA.
“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,” said the company in its immediate response to the CIA animation.
The NTSB was trifling with the wrong person. As a former chairman on the ALPA Aircraft Evaluation Committee, Lahr knew the rules of the game. As he observes, “There is no legitimate proprietary information in the operation and performance of an airline.” Pilots have to know an aircraft’s capabilities.
Lahr appealed the NTSB’s decision, but after several rebuffs, he was advised that the only remaining recourse was a lawsuit. With the largely pro-bono assistance of attorney John Clarke, Lahr is now taking his case against the National Transportation Safety Board to the United States District Court in Los Angeles on Dec. 15.
The congenial, youthful Lahr has done an excellent job pulling the sometimes-fractious TWA 800 community together to assist him. Many key people have filed sworn affidavits with Lahr, including retired Rear Adm. Clarence Hill, and their collective commentary has to impress even the most skeptical of observers.
Lahr persuaded one key witness, James Holtsclaw, to go public for the first time. In 1996, Holtsclaw was serving as the Deputy Assistant for the Western Region of the Air Transport Association. On July 25, 1996, one week after the disaster, it was Holtsclaw who gave United Airlines pilot Dick Russell a copy of the radar tape recorded at New York Terminal Radar Approach Control. This is the same tape that got Pierre Salinger involved in the case and eventually ruined his career and reputation. Holtsclaw knows it to be “authentic” because he received it directly from an NTSB investigator frustrated by its suppression.
“The tape shows a primary target at 1,200 knots converging with TWA 800, during the climb out phase of TWA 800,” swears Holtsclaw on the affidavit. “Primary target” simply means an object without a transponder. Although Holtsclaw estimates the object’s speed, his estimate falls within the likely range of a missile.
Lahr also recruited retired Air Force Col. Lawrence Pence to his cause. “I find [the CIA scenario] highly unlikely, incredible. With the loss of a wing, with the loss of its pilots, cockpit and front end, I believe that [the aircraft] would have tumbled, tolled and basically dropped like a stone,” argues Pence, who spent most of his career in intelligence, dealing with missile and space issues. “And this is exactly what the radar data that has subsequently been looked at says happened.”
Physicist Thomas Stalcup, Ph.D., has reviewed most if not all of that radar data. “The radar data,” swears Stalcup in his affidavit, “indicate that Flight 800 began an immediate descent and northward turn immediately after losing electrical power.”
Several of the eyewitnesses Lahr has gathered have verified Pence’s stone-falling thesis. One is Maj. Fritz Meyer, a winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross. Meyer stared the explosion in his face from his Air National Guard helicopter about 10 miles away:
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. … If you shot a duck with a full load of buck it came down like that. It came down like a stone.
Master Chief Petty Officer Dwight Brumley also volunteered his testimony to Lahr. A 25-year U.S. Navy vet with top security clearance and hands-on experience with missile exercises, Brumley was flying as a passenger on the right side of US AIR 217. The plane was flying north at 21,000 feet and was just moments from intersecting TWA 800’s flight path when Brumley observed a “flare” moving parallel to US AIR 217 … but faster:
During the approximately 7 to 10 seconds I observed the “flare,” it appeared to be climbing. It then pitched over and then just after the apex (one to two seconds at most) a small explosion appeared in the center of the “flare.” The body of the explosion was spherical in shape and then suddenly grew much bigger and then began to elongate as it appeared to be headed downward, growing larger as it descended.
Brumley’s “flare” was moving at nearly a right angle to TWA Flight 800. In addition to Brumley, Meyer and others, Lahr has entered the testimony of two critical witnesses whose testimony has been largely overlooked. On the subject of the CIA animation, however, no witnesses are more critical than the two pilots of an Eastwind Flight 507 from Boston to Trenton, First Officer Vincent Fuschetti and Capt. David McCLaine.
The Eastwind pilots were about to begin a slow descent to Trenton when they first spotted TWA Flight 800, then some 60 miles away on this “crystal clear” night. McClaine described the plane with its landing lights still on as “definitely the brightest light in the sky.” As Flight 800 approached them at a slightly lower altitude and began crossing its path from right to left, McClaine flicked on his own inboard landing light to signal to the pilots of TWA 800 that he and Fuschetti had the aircraft in sight.
Just as he flicked on his light, wrote McClaine in his report to Eastwind Airline immediately after the crash, “The other aircraft exploded into a very large ball of flames.” At this point, the two aircraft were less than 20 miles apart. “Almost immediately,” observed McClaine, “two flaming objects, with flames trailing about 4,000 feet behind them, fell out of the bottom of the ball of flame.” Within 10 seconds of witnessing the explosion, McClaine called in the explosion to Boston air-traffic control. He was the first one to do so. The FBI knew this by day two:
Eastwind: “We just saw an explosion out here, Stinger Bee 507 (Dave McClaine, Captain, Eastwind Airlines)”
Controller: “Stinger Bee 507, I’m sorry I missed it … did you say something else.”
Eastwind: “We just saw an explosion up ahead of us here, somewhere about 16,000 feet or something like that. It just went down – in the water.”
The reader does well to recall the postulate on which, the infamous CIA video is based: No eyewitnesses saw the initial explosion. This was a lie – there is no nice way to describe it – and the CIA knew it. Fuschetti and McClaine both witnessed the initial explosion. The crew of two other airliners immediately confirmed their sightings. Brumley and Meyer saw the initial explosion as well. At a minimum, eight unimpeachable, experienced, airborne eyewitnesses saw the first blast and from a variety of different angles.
The CIA lied to protect its bizarre timeline. As the CIA told the story, the plane suffered an invisible center fuel tank explosion, lost its nose four seconds later, zoom-climbed an additional 3,200 feet and only then broke into two distinct fireballs, “more than 42 seconds” after the initial blast.
Compare the CIA story with Eastwind First Officer Fuschetti’s testimony. “At the onset of the explosion, the fireball spread horizontally then spilt into two columns of fire, which immediately began to fall slowly towards the water below.” Lest anyone misinterpret him, Fuschetti adds, “At no time did I see any vertical travel of the aircraft after the explosion occurred.”
The CIA’s fiery climb was necessary to explain away the hundreds of claims from eyewitnesses on the ground. It does not, however, account for what McClaine and Fuschetti saw. They saw the plane clearly at every stage.
Although McClaine and Fuschetti could not see a missile streak from their angle, they undoubtedly saw the first explosion and the immediate plunge of the plane into the sea. Indeed, McClaine was telling Boston air-traffic control that the plane “just went down – in the water” within 10 to 15 seconds of that first blast.
This may well explain why the NTSB never interviewed Fuschetti and did not interview McClaine until March 25, 1999, nearly a year and a half after the FBI closed the criminal case with a showing of the CIA video. “You are a very key person as far as we are concerned,” said Robert Young, TWA’s representative on the NTSB witness group, “because you were the only person that was looking at it at the time.”
Although McClaine was by no means the “only person,” Young’s acknowledgement boldly refutes the CIA claim that no one had seen the initial explosion. Young, at least, wanted this to be known. He asked McClaine whether there were any noticeable climbing angle changes before or after. Answered McClaine, “None at all.”
“I didn’t see it pitch up, no,” McClaine elaborated. “Everything ended right there at that explosion as far as I’m concerned.” When McClaine ironically ventured a far-fetched scenario that could have resulted in the CIA’s zoom-climb, Young responded in the same spirit, “We’d be cutting new trails in aviation if we could do that.” Young, however, was in no position to convert irony into action, and he knew it. The die had already been cast.
Still, Young did not give up. A few weeks after its interview with McClaine, the NTSB witness group managed to secure an interview with the two CIA analysts responsible for the video, now a full 18 months after the video’s sole showing. Young badgered the chief analyst, then unidentified, with McClaine’s testimony.
“If [the nose-less plane] had ascended,” Young asked the analyst rhetorically, “[McClaine] would have been concerned because it ascended right through his altitude.” When the analyst tried to deflect the question, Young continued, “I think he would have noticed it. Your analysis has it zooming to above his altitude.”
“It’s a very critical point that it’s not critical precisely how high that plane went,” the CIA analyst bluffed before pulling out his trump card. “Even if the plane went up several thousand feet on the ground there’s maybe one witness that saw that, this guy on the bridge.”
When pressed, the analyst could cite only one person who actually saw the zoom-climb, “the guy on the bridge.” Ray Lahr has marshaled his testimony as well. His name is Mike Wire, a millwright from Philadelphia and a U.S. Army vet. And how did the “guy on the bridge” feel about the CIA video?
“When I first saw the scenario, I thought they used it just as a story to pacify the general public,” attests Wire, “because it didn’t represent what I had testified to the agent I saw out there.”
What Wire saw was an object streaking up off the horizon and zigzagging out to sea at a 45-degree angle. For the record, the CIA analysts or the FBI fully fabricated the interview in which Wire was alleged to have changed his mind about what he saw. No such “second interview” ever took place.
In the last six years, Ray Lahr has talked to many of the eyewitnesses and many other experts as well. He has put more than $10,000 of his own money into the investigation and countless hours of his time. On Monday, he gets his first day in court.
The government has potentially two witnesses on its side, neither of them particularly credible. One is Dennis Crider, the beleaguered NTSB technician, who has refused to share his unique knowledge of the cryptic zoom-climb calculations. The other is the CIA analyst, now proudly identified by the CIA as Randolph Tauss, who first conjured up the zoom-climb hypothesis
Tauss’s own account of how he came to this conclusion speaks eloquently about the Rube Goldberg quality of the government’s case. At the April 1999 interview with the NTSB, Tauss traced his eureka moment to the precise hour of 10 p.m. on Dec. 30, 1996. Said Tauss, “There was a realization, having all the data laid out in front of me, that you can explain what the eyewitnesses are seeing with only the burning aircraft.”
For all the talk of interagency cooperation, the FBI had lent witness statements to the CIA in small, frustrating batches, starting with “30 or 40” out of more than 700. Tauss, in fact, came to his startling conclusion after reviewing only about 12 percent of the interview statements, many of these hasty and slapdash in the first place. Tauss did not speak to a single eyewitness. Scary as it sounds, he won an “intelligence medal” for his work.
The NTSB could not afford to test Tauss’s zoom-climb hypothesis. Its case depends fully upon it. Without the hypothesis, there is no explanation for what those 270 eyewitnesses saw other than the obvious – namely missiles streaking upwards toward TWA Flight 800. If Lahr can publicly undermine the zoom-climb hypothesis, he can possibly force open the case.
No one individual has more cause to be dissatisfied with the glacially slow revelation of truth in this case than Lahr. But he has not given up faith. In fact, he has not yet even begun to fight.
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