July 17 marks the 10th anniversary of the destruction of TWA Flight 800, the investigation of which represented the most conspicuous and consequential misdirection of justice in American history. This is the first in a 10-part series leading up to that date.
More than five years ago, retired United Airlines Capt. Ray Lahr began his 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.
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 swore they had seen 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 presented in the CIA video, the nose of the aircraft blew off from an internal explosion, and then the nose-less 747 “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.” Trailing flames, this vertically zooming nose-less aircraft allegedly deceived the eyewitnesses into thinking they had seen a missile. The CIA makes this claim despite the fact that scores of the eyewitnesses saw a flaming object ascend from the surface.
Although the CIA zoom-climb scenario defies all known laws of aerodynamics, to make it work even as propaganda the CIA had to show the body of the aircraft structurally intact. In a distinct animation of its own, the National Transportation Safety Board also pictures a nose-less aircraft with wings and fuselage fully in place soaring gracefully upright for several thousand feet.
Lahr’s persistence, however, has finally paid off. In response to his petition, the CIA sent to Lahr in March 2006 tabular listings of the primary radar returns of the doomed airplane. This data lacked title, annotation or any sense of its importance. Those who released it may not have known what they were releasing. Glen Schulze did. Lahr turned the data over to this “engineer and researcher extraordinaire,” and Schulze went to work.
Some years ago, at the behest of certain family members of the crash victims, Schulze analyzed the flight data recorder, or FDR. After much painstaking research of the timing blocks in the recording sequence, Schulze determined that the four seconds following the initial explosion had been eliminated from the FDR. In Lahr’s opinion, this was a deliberate attempt to hide an initial break-up sequence that differed from the one offered by the authorities.
Schulze and one of the family members, Don Nibert, presented his FDR findings to NTSB Chairman Jim Hall in a closed-door meeting. Although challenged to do so, the NTSB has never refuted those findings.
Now Schulze has just released his careful analysis of the primary radar returns before and after the initial explosion. For the record, a “primary” return means that the radar has “skin painted” an otherwise unidentified object in its sweep of a given area. A “secondary” return refers to the capturing of an identifying signal from a plane’s transponder.
Working with the data Lahr received, as well as that received by U Mass engineer Graeme Sephton in a distinct FOIA suit, Schulze manually entered the hard-copy data into an Excel spreadsheet before charting. This was the only way it could be done.
What Schulze discovered is that when the TWA 800 transponder power was lost, several of the nine ground radars tracking the nose-less Boeing 747 immediately started to skin-paint the larger structural remains of the 747. At least one of these radars, the FAA radar out of Islip, was rotating at a fast 4.7 seconds-per-360 degree rate.
Had the nose-less airframe of the 747 gone into a zoom-climb as shown in the CIA animation, it would have demanded equal lift coefficients from both attached wings and equal thrust from all four engines still attached for at least 20 seconds. The first four radar sweeps should have produced only two returns with each sweep – the nose and an intact fuselage – but that’s not what they show.
The first 4.7-second sweep does show just two returns. The second one, however, shows four. The third one shows five. For the radar to skin paint an object it has to be of significant size. “These additional radar returns,” argues Schulze, “can only be explained by the nose-less 747 immediately disintegrating into more than only two large structural pieces in these first 20 seconds.”
Lahr believes that if the wings were still hanging together after the nose departed, there was an immediate pitch-up that put additional stress on the crippled wing. The outer wing panels probably separated at this time, and the main wing probably collapsed immediately thereafter. Indeed, the outer wing panels were found widely separated from the main sections of the wing.
This corresponds with what the more observant eyewitnesses saw. One travel professional, for instance, told the FBI that she saw a flaming, ascending object arc over “like an upside down Nike swoosh” at the aircraft’s right wing and then “a fire at the aircraft followed by one or two secondary explosions which had a deeper sound.” According to the FBI 302, “She then observed the front of the aircraft separate from the back. She then observed burning pieces of debris falling from the aircraft.”
An Eastwind captain, David McClaine, was about to begin a slow descent to Trenton when he first spotted TWA Flight 800 climbing towards him 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 at a slightly lower altitude and began crossing his path from right to left, McClaine flicked on his own inboard landing light to signal to the pilots of TWA 800 that he 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.
Not one out of more than 700 FBI eyewitness saw the plane ascend after the initial explosion. Neither did the radar. Lahr believes that this fragment inventory and timing data may be “the closest we have to a smoking gun.”
If the radar data were available to the CIA and the NTSB when they created their animations, the simulation data sent to Ray Lahr likely was not. As Graeme Sephton observes, it has a date on it that is significantly later than the October 1997 time frame of the agencies producing the animation. “The implication is that they created the data after they created the animation,” says Sephton, “even though they claimed it was based on some aeronautical simulation model.”
Next week, what the witnesses actually saw.
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