On Thursday, the Discovery Channel premiered a series called “Best Evidence.” The episode was about the explosion of TWA Flight 800 in mid-July of 1996. Although the special was more thorough than almost any previous broadcast, there was still a lot left out of the picture.
To their credit, the producers gave a balanced presentation of the evidence that a missile strike brought down the airliner. In other words, they did not attempt a sales pitch for the government’s story. The producers also refrained from portraying independent researchers as “a band of Internet kooks” – an epithet coined by then-FBI supervisor James Kallstrom. In the TV episode, Kallstrom still uses words such as “preposterous” to describe a missile scenario. But, is it preposterous?
The government says that a “random spark” inside the center fuel tank caused an explosion that brought down Flight 800. And, an experiment done just for the “Best Evidence” episode purports to show that a spark could have produced an explosion. But, there were some facts left out. (They did show a comment by Dr. Thomas Stalcup that many variables could skew the results.) The experiment, like the government’s story, hinges upon the speculation that the jet fuel in the center tank had become more volatile because the tank had heated up while awaiting takeoff on that summer evening. But, the narrator failed to mention that the air surrounding the tank would have cooled off dramatically by the time the airliner reached 13,800 feet – the altitude at which it suddenly exploded in midair. Ask any skydiver about cool air aloft, even in mid-summer.
The experiment took place in the New Mexico desert. The heating was done beneath a tarpaulin, and it took the direct heat of multiple forced-air heaters for three hours. And, unlike a real airliner, the experiment featured a “mixing fan” inside the tank. (Jet fuel remains fairly safe, until its vapors are misted under pressure.) So, at best, the experiment only loosely approximated Flight 800’s fuel tank.
Although the experiment did produce an explosion, there are some notable points about the results. First, the spark required to produce the explosion was 15 times what the government said would be needed to produce ignition. Second, the spark was three times the voltage that researchers state was going through the wiring of the fuel tank. Third, it was a low-velocity explosion – which is incapable of the type of force that destroyed Flight 800. The majority of the experiment’s fuel tank remained intact; mostly the top of the tank “peeled” open. (It appears that the tank was designed to relieve blast pressure in a controlled manner.) The blast vented upwards, which even the government concedes did not happen aboard Flight 800. And, years prior, that same airliner (747 N-17119) survived a direct hit by lightning while on approach to Rome, Italy. Aircraft are built with a way to discharge static electricity in flight. Further, no other 747 – neither before nor since – has exploded as a result of a suspected “random spark” in the fuel tank. Thus, even an experiment designed to show the validity of the government’s story actually did the opposite.
Hot story vs. cold facts
The government’s own facts don’t support its story. The TV narrator said that Flight 800 was delayed for two and a half hours before takeoff and that the aircraft sat in temperatures that were “in the 90s.” But, according to the NTSB’s own documents, that isn’t true. On July 17, 1996, the afternoon high was 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) at 1551 hours (3:51 p.m.). About half an hour before takeoff (observation at 1951 hours), the temperature had dropped to 27 degrees Celsius (80 degrees Fahrenheit). The sun was on its way down when Flight 800 took off. (Authors Jack Cashill and James Sanders found that, during that half-hour between the hourly observation and takeoff, the temperature had dropped to 71 degrees Fahrenheit.) Thus, it would’ve been impossible for the temperature inside the fuel tank to reach 112 degrees Fahrenheit. But, the experiment was based upon that government-sourced temperature.
Chart (green line) shows dramatic cooling as altitude increases. (Source: online course, “Weather for Pilots”, University of Wisconsin at Madison)
So, the “best” evidence is that we should believe the government? Based upon a test with fuel heated almost 50 degrees too hot, a spark three times as strong as the voltage in the wiring, and with the fuel vapors circulated (misted?) by a fan in the tank? Now, that’s preposterous!
Still beating the dog
The episode of “Best Evidence” also alluded to “the dog story.” But, the program never mentioned that the government’s dog story has been thoroughly debunked. So, why does the government still “beat the dead dog”?
A detailed explanation can be found in my column “TWA Flight 800: The Dog Still Stinks,” which also references work by landmark investigators Sanders and Cashill. In short, the government said that military-grade explosive residue (compounds RDX and PETN) found inside the structure and cabin of Flight 800 wreckage came from a training exercise for an explosive-detection dog. The exercise purportedly took place months prior to the crash.
Sanders, an ex-cop, tracked down and interviewed the police officer that signed the record of the exercise. Cashill covered the political reasons why the “red herring” story is bogus. I used my Air Force experience to analyze the procedures of the K-9 exercise itself (and obtained a complete 747 pre-flight inspection manual). I also obtained the weather reports for the Saint Louis International Airport. At the time when the K-9 exercise purportedly occurred, there was a thunderstorm. (Would you bring explosives aboard an airliner in a thunderstorm? Would you bring a wet dog aboard a commercial airliner just before takeoff?) The dog story was designed to explain away the explosive residue in the wreckage of Flight 800. Instead, the dog story blew up in the government’s face.
While the government went to great lengths – defying the laws of physics and likely the laws of evidence – to cover up the truth about Flight 800, the Discovery Channel’s “Best Evidence” episode contained not only errors of logic, but also contradictions. It presented anything but the “best evidence” concerning the tragedy of July 17, 1996.
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Tom Kovach lives near Nashville, is a former USAF Blue Beret, and has written for several online publications. He recently published his first book. Kovach is also an inventor, a horse wrangler, a certified paralegal and a former talk-radio host. To learn more, visit: www.TomKovach.us.