sitemap Advocate Article

Well-placed Critics Say The Feds Badly
Botched Their Flight 800 Inquiry

By Mark K. Anderson

Valley/Springfield Advocate and Fairfield/Westchester Weekly.

January 29, 1998

"In my view, the 'Alice in Wonderland' public positions the FBI has taken in this incident have now
crossed over from being merely illogical or incompetent to the appearance of obstruction of justice"
Cdr. William S. Donaldson


Numbers don't speak much — and when they do, it's usually not to reporters. So the lack of media fanfare was not surprising when, in December, the National Transportation Safety Board released thousands of pages of data, charts, findings, figures and facts on the investigation of the July 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800. But to several seasoned military crash experts, these numbers didn't speak; they sang.

"I'm looking at the hard physical evidence," Commander William S. Donaldson, a retired Navy aviator and air crash investigator, told the Advocate. "The government is saying one thing, and the evidence is saying another. ... All the physical evidence fits perfectly with an explosion outside of the airplane." Following an exhaustive analysis of the Flight 800 investigation, Donaldson has concluded that, as he puts it, "either the aircraft was hit by an Amtrak Metroliner on the left side or by a powerful anti-aircraft weapon."

The NTSB maintains that a spark caused the 747's center fuel tank to explode, causing the jetliner to break up in mid-air and fall into the sea, killing all 230 people on board. But that theory explains nothing about the actual data from the crash, Donaldson said. In fact, it confuses the matter. "The government's position doesn't make any sense. The more you get into it, the less sense it makes," Donaldson said. "It gets very frustrating. We need to hold these people's feet to the fire."

Donaldson, whose work has received alarmingly little attention from the American media, presents a serious challenge to the FBI/NTSB investigation, which seems to have reached the conclusion, almost by default, that an unspecified mechanical failure caused the crash. Despite the sparse coverage of his findings, Donaldson has gained a sympathetic ear on Capitol Hill. Representative James A. Trafficant Jr. (D-OH) has consulted with Donaldson and has joined him in calling for a full congressional investigation into the crash, including the possibility that the plane was downed by a missile. (Many critics of the NTSB investigation have argued that an American missile fired accidentally from a "hot" military warning area near the accident downed the plane. But Donaldson finds it more likely that the missile was fired by a foreign terrorist organization.)

Donaldson is attracting allies in high places elsewhere within the Beltway as well. Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended a Jan. 8 press conference in Washington at which Donaldson announced his findings. Moorer said he found Donaldson's report very persuasive. "Commander Donaldson is a very experienced aviator and very experienced in the process of investigating accidents. He's a highly credible source," Moorer told the Advocate. Moorer found Donaldson's discussion of eyewitness testimony especially compelling. "You can't just brush it off by saying there was no missile, because so many people saw it from beginning to end. "We should seriously consider a formal congressional investigation," Moorer added, echoing his previous calls for independent and critical scrutiny of the crash in which, as Moorer told the Detroit News, "all evidence would point to a missile."

The best place to begin such an investigation, Donaldson noted, is with the people who witnessed the crash. At his press conference, Donaldson turned the podium over to National Guard helicopter pilot Major Frederick C. Meyer, who saw the crash from the air. Since he first spoke to the press on the day after the crash, Meyer has maintained that he saw a streak of light cross the sky and intercept the doomed jetliner. Meyer says he then saw an "ordnance explosion" followed by the breakup and eventual crash of the airplane. In addition to speaking with Meyer for his report, Donaldson interviewed 96 people who saw the crash from the ground. All 96, scattered along 11 miles of shoreline, reported seeing a streak of light rise from the surface of the water and merge with the plane before the plane exploded. The FBI and NTSB have countered that the witnesses saw either burning jet fuel falling from the airplane or they saw the 747, decapitated by a fuel tank explosion, climbing several thousand feet before exploding a final time and falling into the ocean.

Additionally, using Global Positioning System satellite technology, Donaldson triangulated the locations of the eyewitnesses and the trajectories of the streaks they reported. The data, he said, suggests that they all saw the same "streak of light" emerge from the water. "These people are stretched out along 11 mines of coastline, and they're all pointing to the same place," Donaldson said. "Now, you get 11 miles of coast and dozens of people who have never met before all pointing to the same place. What's the chance of that being coincidence?"

To Donaldson's surprise, federal investigators have not done such an analysis. "The NTSB literally did not consider the eyewitness testimony," he said. "They were operating under the premise that the FBI was already considering that." And the FBI, he added, has never addressed the eyewitness data as anything more than a series of anomalies. The bureau did not, so far as Donaldson has ever seen, even do his simple triangulation experiment. Instead, as he put it, "The FBI has thrown a cloak over that kind of eyewitness."

Like the eyewitness testimony, the physical data also points unmistakably toward a missile, Donaldson said. "There are many physical anomalies in the evidence," he noted. "And they're consistent with the picture that the aircraft had been engaged by another force." For instance, the nose landing gear doors were blown into the wheel well — requiring an external force that a "mechanical failure" explosion of the center fuel tank or a fall into the ocean could not provide. "Some huge hammer blow hit those doors from the outside," he said. Furthermore, he observed, the pattern of damage on the external metal "skin" on the aircraft's fuselage points to a high-pressure wave striking the plane from below and to the left. "Some force underneath and forward left also pushed the whole nose up and made the skin on the bottom pull tight and apart and the skin on the top wrinkle together," Donaldson said. "There was an external push that caused the skin to fail." The NTSB's mechanical failure model, he added, could not have brought about such structural damage.

In another finding that suggests a high-pressure explosion below and to the left of the aircraft, Donaldson explained why the skin above the left wing was shredded. "When you have a huge, slamming shock wave striking from below, it hits the bottom of the wing, and the energy gets transferred through the liquid [fuel]." As a result, he said, the fuel stored in the left wing struck the wing's upper skin with enough force to tear the metal to pieces. The right wing did not suffer similar damage, he added, because it was shielded from the blast by the plane's fuselage.

Donaldson's most damning evidence, though, comes from the recently released records of the Flight Data Recorder. After the NTSB's December public hearings into the Flight 800 investigation, the data captured by the doomed airliner's "black box" was released for public scrutiny. But the final second and a half of data was crossed out. "The whole reason that you put that piece of gear — the expensive piece of gear — in this airplane is to be able to recover it and play it back and see exactly what everything in that airplane was doing," Donaldson said in a Dec. 23 radio interview. "When they get to the very end of the tape — the stuff that's the whole reason the gear is in the airplane — they literally drew a line through the last data block and made a note on the side: 'End of Flight 800 data.' When you look at it, it's hard to read through it at first — you assume, as I did, that this was some kind of previous recording or something and I sort of skipped over it."

The NTSB maintains that the data is meaningless because it was actually a transcript from a previous flight. Donaldson counters that the extreme conditions recorded on the "last data line" could not sustain flight and therefore must be from Flight 800's final moments. However chaotic and jumbled the "last data line" appears to the untrained eye, Donaldson argues that the Flight Data Recorder shows conclusively that a high-pressure wave coming from 60 feet below and to the left of the fuselage struck the plane. (A detailed analysis of Donaldson's findings has been posted on the Internet at

The data recorder's terminal second shows the airspeed falling nearly 200 knots, the altitude "dropping" 3,600 feet (a false reading, Donaldson asserts, given by a high-pressure wave striking the altitude-sensing instruments) and the front end of the plane pitching up— exerting such forces on the crew and passengers that they all would have died instantaneously of whiplash. Donaldson's reading of the flight data records is further corroborated by the autopsy data. As he wrote in an acerbic letter to FBI Director Louis Freeh on Dec. 3, "The medical examiners' universal cause of death of FL800's crew and passengers was cranium/cervical spine separation due to ligament failure. In layman's terms: fatal whiplash.  "These injuries are not at all consistent with your contract cartoon," he continued, referring to the CIA-produced videotape, which the FBI and NTSB released in November to advance the mechanical failure theory. "Any yaw, pitch or angular deceleration force strong enough to break everyone's neck would have immediately flamed out all four engines."

The CIA's "contract cartoon" is the ultimate in irresponsibility, Donaldson said: It shows just how far some in the government's investigation will go to mislead the public. "It was entertaining but like most cartoons grossly abused universal laws of nature," he wrote to Freeh. "In my view, the 'Alice in Wonderland' public positions the FBI has taken in this incident have now crossed over from being merely illogical or incompetent to the appearance of obstruction of justice," he added, saying that he had "seen better police work in Pink Panther movies."

Donaldson said he finds too much suspicious behavior in the government's investigation to simply write its failure off to bureaucratic ineptitude. "I can't believe anybody can be this incompetent," he said. "I suspect it's a cover-up, yes." He hopes that his findings will prompt Congress to hold its own hearings into the investigation. "Somebody's going to break through," he noted. "But till then, people like me are going to be plugging away."

Go to Letter from FBI to House Aviation Subcommittee

Go to the Donaldson File Index