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More than five years ago, retired United Airline Capt. Ray Lahr began his FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) petition to discover why TWA Flight 800 blew up on the night of July 17, 1996, off the coast of Long Island.
The powers that be at the Central Intelligence Agency may have thought they could stall Lahr until he just gave up or died trying. If so, they didn’t know the man. Capt. Lahr is as fixed on the truth as Capt. Ahab was fixed on his whale.
Last week, Lahr and his attorney, John Clarke of Washington, D.C., filed an amended complaint in a U.S. District Court in California against the CIA, the National Transportation Safety Board, and now the much-in-the-news National Security Agency. In so doing, Lahr has left his adversaries increasingly little room to maneuver, and Lahr’s is but one of three, active TWA Flight 800 suits making its way through the federal courts.
From the beginning, Lahr has focused his attack on the most vulnerable point of the government defense – what he calls “the zoom-climb scenario.” The FBI first publicly advanced this scenario in November 1997, 16 months after the crash. 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 contended that what the witnesses saw was “a Boeing 747 in various stages of crippled flight.” Its producers wanted the audience to come away with one understanding. And this was underlined, literally, on screen: “The Eyewitnesses Did Not See a Missile.”
The video climaxed with an animation purporting to show what the eyewitnesses did see. As seen in the CIA video, the nose of the aircraft blew off from an internal explosion.
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 that this was what the eyewitnesses had seen – not missiles, but a rocketing, noseless 747 trailing fire.
The amended suit addresses two startling new discoveries. One is that the CIA generated its zoom-climb calculations after it produced and showed its notorious video. The second is that the NSA originated, and now withholds under FOIA exemptions, a flight-path simulation, apparently the one that was the basis of the CIA’s zoom-climb conclusion.
Lahr and Clarke hope to wrestle this information from the exceedingly reluctant clutches of the nation’s foremost surveillance agencies. The nation’s mainstream media, with their watchdog enthusiasms lately aroused, might wish to help Lahr pry this information loose. If interested, they could begin their inquiries with the two pilots of an Eastwind Flight airborne the night of July 17, 1996, 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 climbing toward them 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, “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 2:
Eastwind: We just saw an explosion out here, Stinger Bee 507 (McClaine)
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.
As the CIA told the story, the plane suffered a center-fuel-tank explosion “not seen by a single eyewitness” because the slower-moving sound had not yet alerted anyone – a contention easily disputed by the Eastwind pilots or any of the other excellent airborne eyewitnesses. According to the CIA, after the aircraft lost its nose, it zoom-climbed 3,200 feet where there was a secondary explosion. Then the aircraft nosed over and dived to about 8,000 feet where there was a third explosion and only then broke into two distinct fireballs, “more than 42 seconds” after the initial blast.
In reality, as Lahr contends, after the nose was gone, the aircraft could not have climbed and then dived nose first. It was so tail-heavy that it would have immediately pitched up, stalled, and fallen tail first. The weakened wing failed in the pitch up as indicated by two flaming streams falling out of the initial fireball.
One need only compare the CIA story with Eastwind First Officer Fuschetti’s testimony to see through the CIA invention. “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 – indeed, the landing lights were still on, proof that the electrical system was working and the nose intact – and the immediate plunge of the plane into the sea. McClaine was telling Boston air-traffic control that the plane “just went down – in the water” within 10-15 seconds of that first blast.
This may well explain why the NTSB (or the media) never interviewed Fuschetti. The NTSB did not interview McClaine until March 25, 1999, nearly two and a half years after the accident and 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.”
McClaine was by no means the “only person.” Within seconds after McClaine’s initial report, two other airline crews confirmed his report. Still, 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.”
ll of this evidence is presented in Lahr’s case.These facts “come from an impressive array of 29 expert and fact witnesses,” reads Lahr’s court papers. Among those offering affidavits are two aerodynamicists and six air-crash investigators, three of whom were parties to the TWA Flight 800 probe. The case also includes the affidavits of former NTSB member Dr. Vernon Gross, and retired Rear Adm. Mark Hill. In addition, Lahr has gathered the real testimony of the two eyewitnesses featured in the CIA’s animation, both of whom flatly reject the CIA scenario.
Lahr’s court papers state that one would be “hard-pressed to imagine a more fit case” for the judge to find government illegality. Under the FOIA, writes attorney Clarke, because “the Flight 800 tragedy is the most controversial disaster in aviation history,” the judge must evaluate the government’s behavior during its Flight 800 probe. Clarke believes that Lahr clearly has the upper hand in the case.
Lahr knows that the Eastwind pilots are telling the truth. So does the CIA. Now, with the 10th anniversary approaching of TWA 800’s demise, it is left to a California federal judge to insist that the truth be shared with the nation.
Lahr is not overly optimistic, but he is not about to give up.
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