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 column is part of an in-depth look at the incident, presenting several compelling reasons why the investigation must be re-opened. Writer Robert Donaldson has headed up Associated Retired Aviation Professionals since the death of his brother, Cmdr. William Donaldson, five years ago.
Nearly 10 years ago, on a warm summer night off the coast of Long Island, hundreds of people saw what they described as “fireworks” or “flares” streaking from the surface and terminating in the explosion of TWA Flight 800 and its subsequent fiery crash. That night, 230 people lost their lives. Many of the witnesses described a squiggly smoke trail with an orange glow, a characteristic of a shoulder-fired missile. Immediate news reports on TV, radio and in print media were that witnesses had seen a missile shoot down Flight 800.
Within days, the FBI had over 1,000 agents on Long Island interviewing over 700 eyewitnesses. James Kallstrom, FBI agent in charge, repeatedly stated that they were studying three possible scenarios: a missile, a bomb or mechanical failure. Over the next few months, Kallstrom gradually steered the press away from the missile theory until in November 1997 the FBI withdrew from the investigation, stating that it could find no evidence of a criminal act.
During this time, the press was told that Flight 800 was out of range of a shoulder-fired missile, otherwise known as a MANPADS, which stands for Man Portable Air Defense System. Further, the press was told that these missiles are heat seekers and would have struck one of the 747s engines, and since no engine was damaged, it could not have been a MANPADS missile. It was also claimed that such a small missile could not have brought down the huge 747. The CIA was then brought in to create a video animation to explain that “It wasn’t a missile.” This video was shown to the national press and aired on TV nationwide. So, in a little over one year, the press went from “It was a missile” to “it couldn’t have been a missile.” The transition was complete.
So what really happened? What did the FBI know, and when did they know it?
After the crash, the FBI immediately formed a missile team, which included an agent who was a former fighter pilot. The team also included military missile experts. This team, combined with the Suffolk County police, zeroed in on a dozen credible eyewitnesses. The team went to the location where each witness saw the events and, using GPS and a hand-bearing compass, they triangulated potential launch locations for at least two shoulder-fired missiles. This is documented in a letter to their superiors. Released under the Freedom of Information Act in 1999, it was clear from their letter that the FBI missile team believed missiles had been fired at Flight 800. However, James Kallstrom would have none of it! He demanded they bring him a “smoking gun,” a piece of physical evidence that could prove a missile had been fired.
This search for a “smoking gun” led the missile team to initiate an elaborate dredging operation to look specifically for Stinger missile parts. The Stinger is a U.S. made MANPADS missile. The press was told the dredging was being done to look for every last part of the aircraft and missing victims. However, the dredging operation was not centered over the aircraft wreckage site; it was centered over the location identified by the missile team as possible launch points.
The FBI missile team hired three scallop trawlers to dredge an area with a radius of 2.7 nautical miles, which just happens to be the range of a Stinger missile. Each trawler was equipped with two FBI agents with detailed instructions, including drawings, on how to recognize Stinger missile components. The trawling maps are annotated “Per FBI – Possible Missile Launch Zone – 2.7nm.” This operation went on for nearly six months before being abruptly canceled. No one knows if they found what they were looking for.
So, why would the FBI missile team spend so much time and effort looking for shoulder-fired missile evidence if Flight 800 was out of range and they were sure it had not been hit by a missile? Good question! The reason is they knew it was in range of a Stinger missile, they just didn’t want the public to know.
In mid-August 1996, the FBI missile team received a PowerPoint presentation by military missile experts. This document, which has never been published before, was recently found in the archives of the late Cmdr. William S. Donaldson. It proves, beyond any doubt, that Flight 800 could easily have been shot down by a shoulder-fired missile. Meanwhile, the agency was telling the press just the opposite.
Slide 1 sums it all up. A MANPADS missile could have easily reached flight 800’s altitude and could have caused catastrophic damage to the aircraft. The team was told that the heat-seeking warhead will steer for the center points when there are multiple heat sources. The infrared photograph of a 747 clearly shows that the A/C packs under the center fuel tank are an additional heat source and the center of all heat sources.
Slide 2 shows the computer simulation results from the oldest Stinger-type missiles that were shipped to Afghanistan. This program is used by the military to determine the PK (probability of kill) for various launch points. It shows that if the missile was launched from in front of Flight 800 it could have shot down the aircraft. The official Effective Range of the early Stinger is listed as 10,000 feet. However, that is against a maneuvering fighter aircraft, not a lumbering 747 taking no evasive action.
Slide 3 shows the profile of the missile with a TOF (time of flight) of 10 seconds. During this time, the missile is traveling at supersonic speed. Ten seconds is about the time most eyewitnesses estimated they saw the missile before impact. By contrast, the CIA and NTSB claimed the eyewitnesses saw the burning airplane climbing 3,000 ft. trailing flames. This would have taken the 747 at least 20-30 seconds and would hardly have looked like a “flare or fireworks.” From 10 miles away, it would have looked more like it was climbing in slow motion.
Slide 4 shows Missile and Aircraft Speed. The engine burn time is 6-7 seconds. The missile would only be visible during the engine burn when it is leaving a smoke trail. Many eyewitnesses said they saw the missile disappear for a few seconds before the explosion. Although the missile slows down after engine burnout, this slide predicts it would impact at 500 m/s. This means it would be traveling at over 1,000 mph. Even though the warhead is small, the amount of energy just from the impact at that speed would cause catastrophic damage.
Slide 5 Shows the Probability of Kill for a “tier 2” MANPADS missile. Remember, the Afghan era Stinger was designed and built in the 1970s. By the late 1980s, extended range MANPADS missiles were available from not just the U.S., but from the Soviet Union, China and many other nations. This slide clearly shows that aircraft in 1996 and especially today are extremely vulnerable to shoulder-launched missiles.
We don’t know if the FBI missile team ever found the “smoking gun” it was looking for, but I believe that the extreme measures that the FBI, CIA and NTSB went to to convince the public that the eyewitnesses did not see a missile is, itself, a “smoking gun.” The eyewitness reports were held by the FBI and not even given to the NTSB until 1999, then only released to the public under FOIA. No eyewitness was ever allowed to testify at any of the public hearings, even after taking out a full-page ad in the Washington Post demanding to do so. Why have they gone to so much trouble to convince the public that the eyewitnesses didn’t see what they know they saw?
So what does this all mean? Why would the government want to cover up a missile attack on Flight 800? If you will remember, the crash occurred three days before the start of the Atlanta Olympics and four months before the 1996 presidential election. Leaving politics aside, if the public realized that Flight 800 had been shot down, it would have had a devastating effect on the airline industry and the economy as a whole, as we saw after 9-11. The president may well have felt justified in keeping this quiet for national security reasons, and it would have only taken a few key people, like Jim Kallstrom, to keep demanding more proof until there is no alternative left except a mysterious mechanical-failure theory that itself cannot be duplicated in any laboratory.
Unfortunately, all they accomplished was to make us more vulnerable. By 1996, 26 civilian aircraft had been shot down worldwide by shoulder-fired missiles. Granted, most were in Africa or other war zones, but the threat to commercial aviation was real then and is an even bigger threat today. It wasn’t until an El Al near miss in 2003 in Africa and a cargo plane was badly damaged in Baghdad that studies of shoulder-fired missile countermeasures for U.S. civilian aircraft were authorized, but 10 years after Flight 800 we remain vulnerable to these missiles.
There is a fine line between the need to keep things quiet for “national security” reasons and the public’s right to know. In a free society, we should trust the public with the information; they can handle it. Had we known the truth about Flight 800 there would likely have been increased airline security, which may well have prevented 9-11 and would surely have led to electronic countermeasures on all U.S. commercial aircraft. As it stands today, it is only a matter of time before another U.S. airliner is shot down by shoulder-fired missiles.
Read previous installments in this series:
Part 4: “1 secret the Times has kept”
Part 5: “What Jamie Gorelick knew”
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Robert Donaldson is head of the Associated Retired Aviation Professionals.