What prompts this column is an e-mail I received last week from a retired USNR commander and former TWA pilot, with whom I had had no prior contact.
He recounted a conversation that he had shortly after the mid-air destruction of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996, off the coast of Long Island. He had a particular interest in the plane’s demise for two reasons. One is that he was a qualified accident investigator. The second is that he had flown that very same flight a week earlier.
“It had to be a bloody missile, probably an un-armed Tomahawk, going for center-of-mass,” he said to a senior flight manager of his acquaintance. “They were most likely going for a target drone and testing their capability to go-through normal aircraft traffic to get at the target.”
The flight manager agreed and recounted what he had been told by a maintenance foreman at the investigation hangar on Long Island.
“They had this curtained area over in the corner with Marine armed guards in front,” the foreman had told him. “But, I did see one of the right mainmounts that had a crease out of it, as if something round had passed through it. And, to me, it sure looked like an ‘entry’ and ‘exit’ hole in the fuselage.”
I cite this e-mail for two reasons. One is that the accepted wisdom among many TWA pilots immediately after the crash matches closely the detailed account of what transpired, at least as reported in an extraordinarily comprehensive anonymous review that I and investigator Ray Lahr received a few months ago.
The second reason is that all of the best eyewitness accounts that I have received that might verify this scenario are second-hand. In fact, no one that I know has talked to anyone who witnessed the firing of the fatal missiles.
My partner in this investigation, James Sanders, had developed any number of discreet first-hand sources in 1996-1997, but all of these sources “went away after we were indicted.” The “we” refers to James and his wife, Elizabeth, at the time a TWA trainer, both of whom eventually were convicted of the bogus charge of conspiracy to steal airplane parts.
If an eyewitness were to come forward, now would be a good time, a safer time as well. The true story might derail the ambitions of a candidate or two – Al Gore for sure, Hillary probably – but the major media would be more willing to listen before either became the party’s nominee. If either is elected president, the story dies.
I have sent “The Review” to perhaps 100 people with more technical expertise than I, and it has impressed everyone that I have heard from. Unlike the subjunctive dithering of the NTSB report, The Review is declarative and confident and tells its tale with the dense technical poetry of a Patrick O’Brian novel.
According to The Review’s author, the first missile, the one that destroyed the plane, was large and, if not un-armed, at least failed to explode. The missile shot above TWA Flight 800, found its mark and descended on it from the rear.
“The missile’s momentum was high enough to pitch the nose of the aircraft sharply upward when it landed on the top of the stabilizer,” claims the author, “and alter its heading to the right when it hit the body. The missile’s supersonic speed caused these changes to occur nearly simultaneously.”
The stabilizer is the horizontal part of the tail. The elevator is the movable control on the stabilizer. A hydraulically driven device called the “jackscrew,” located in front of the tail, changes the stabilizer’s pitch angle, which causes the plane to pitch up or down.
So much information is loaded into the recovered jackscrew that author and Air Force vet Tom Kovach calls it the “Rosetta Stone” of the disaster, “the one piece of the aircraft that proves the high-speed action events that brought down Flight 800.”
Apparently, the missile smashed into the stabilizer with more force than the jackscrew could handle, so much force in fact that it ripped the forearm-thick steel of the jackscrew in half. This same force pushed the tail violently down and the nose up and wrenched the plane into an aerodynamic stall. Unable to take the extra stress from the aircraft’s sudden up-pitch, the wing tips fractured simultaneously.
The violent upward pitch of the plane whipsawed the fuselage and snapped the rigid keel beam, which runs under the length of the fuselage. The missile meanwhile skipped off the stabilizer and into the right side of the fuselage, which had flipped up nearly vertically and to the right.
The savage force of this combined action ripped the cockpit off of the plane, which, along with the front of the keel beam and the air conditioning units, plunged into the sea before the rest of the plane did the same.
The Review author deduced this in large part from the debris field and physical evidence, like the fractured jackscrew, but there is more evidence, of course, namely the testimony of the eyewitnesses.
From her Fire Island deck, FBI witness No. 150 watched a shiny, cylindrical wingless object move at high speed from north to south. She then noticed the object head toward “a large commercial airliner” traveling east at the same altitude. The airliner “simply ‘stopped’ at that moment,” she told the FBI.
“As the plane came apart, its nose turned up and to the right,” her FBI 302 continues. “She could see windows on the top right side of front of the plane, even though she had previously been able to see only along its spine.”
“The front was carried forward and arced down with its momentum,” the 302 adds. “The right wing seemed to stay with the plane.”
Six days after the crash, weeks before any of this information became public, witness No. 150 described the break-up sequence of TWA Flight 800 almost perfectly. She was one of more than 750 eyewitnesses that the FBI interviewed.
Another such witness, No. 551, tracked TWA Flight from his window seat on US Air 217 overhead. He watched the 747 for 30-40 seconds as it flew eastward, its cabin lights still on. Then he saw the front of the plane explode. “The plane seemed to stop in mid air like a bus running into a stone wall – no forward motion,” he told the FBI.
The Review author believes that No. 551 was describing the same dramatic stall, a result of the missile impact that No. 150 described, likely the first blow of three. The author does not try to guess the missile’s provenance, but he rules out a Stinger or similar shoulder-fired missile. One can infer from what he writes that the lethal missile was likely a product of the U.S. Navy or a NATO ally.
Dwight Brumley, a retired 25-year United States Navy master chief, also watched the incident from US Air 217. He is among those Navy people who believes that if this missile had come off of a sub or a cruiser, “Somebody would talk to somebody about what they knew (or at least suspected).”
Brumley thinks it possible that there was a test of a defensive missile system by a black ops team that went awry. More likely, he speculates, “We were completely caught with our pants down and TWA 800 was just flat out shot down by an unknown missile.”
“I just know,” Brumley tells me, “that I saw something streaking up toward TWA 800 and that after the initial explosion she never climbed anymore. No ‘zoom climb.’”
If someone knows more or different, we would certainly like to hear from him.
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