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TWA-800 Probe Loses Credibility

Published in the Dec. 1, 1997 issue of The Washington Weekly
Copyright 1997 The Washington Weekly (
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By Edward Zehr

Can the mainstream press survive the unraveling of any of the major coverups in which they have participated? Journalists are already regarded by most Americans as being a cut below lawyers, which is to say they might have a narrow edge over serial killers in a closely contested popularity poll.

How did things come to such a pretty pass? A recent letter from a reader of Washington Weekly set me thinking about this. I believe that the two world wars this country has fought, followed by half a century of protracted conflict, had a lot to do with it.

The reader to whom I refer is also a writer with a degree from a well-known graduate school of journalism. She told some very interesting tales out of school, including one about a widely known journalist and author of many books who was a featured guest at her graduation luncheon. He entertained the new grads by telling them of the "enormous power" they were soon to have. In particular, he explained how the mainstream press had sandbagged President Ford in retaliation for his pardon of Richard Nixon. Remember all those stories about what a clumsy oaf Ford was supposed to be? The journalist told how they had poured over presidential photographs for hours, looking for examples that would make Ford look a "bumbling fool." To drive the point home, they planted a succession of stories that played upon this theme.

Was it effective? You bet. The celebrity journalist boasted that they had been able to secure Ford's defeat, largely through ridicule. I saw reverberations of this story even while living in Germany. The subject came up during a dinner conversation as to who would likely run for the presidency in 1980, and when Ford's name was mentioned, one of the Germans present chimed in, "He won't do -- he keeps falling over."

The truth is that Ford was one of the more athletic and graceful persons to occupy the White House, but it didn't matter. The propagandists who control the press in this country have the power to invent their own "truth." But what has this to do with world wars and such? Well, I just happened to recall a film clip that some newsreel journalists made of Adolf Hitler, "dancing a jig," following the fall of France in 1940. Years later, one of the journalists proudly recounted how they had doctored the film in an effort to make der Fuehrer appear ridiculous. We weren't supposed to care, you see, because almost everybody today considers Hitler to have been a terrible person.

But surely this misses the point. It wasn't Hitler these journalists lied to -- it was us. Well, what's the harm, you might ask? As the Germans say, "Ende gut, alles gut." The problem is, it didn't end with Hitler who, after all, understood these things. At about the same time, his own propaganda minister was portraying Churchill as a drunken buffoon. Years later we see journalists using the same sort of sleazy propaganda trick on an American president, to punish him for an official act of which they, in the godlike majesty of their omniscience, disapproved. This sort of propaganda is designed to trick and mislead the public, depriving them of the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about the real substance of the issues.

Thus we have the example of Dan Quayle, reduced to the status of a sort of world-class village idiot by a series of viciously tendentious stories, many of them totally false and many others grossly distorted. Or Newt Gingrich, who many Americans are firmly convinced has done something truly awful, although they aren't quite certain just what it might have been. Christopher Ruddy recently noted, in a talk carried by C-SPAN, that Newt's trouble with the press started soon after he suggested that the House might want to investigate the death of Vincent Foster.

The mainstream press have arrogated unto themselves the power to turn thumbs up or thumbs down on almost anybody in public life. Their fair-haired boys are protected, no matter how egregious their offenses may be. When an author such as Seymour Hersh points out that the sainted JFK, a media icon, stole the 1960 presidential election from Richard Nixon, with a little help from the Mafia, it is Hersh, not Kennedy who draws the wrath of an enraged press. Not that the story is untrue. It has been known to be true for a number of years. It's just that the mainstream press, in the supreme arrogance of their greedily hoarded power, forbid anybody to mention it publicly. Thus we have an arrogant caste of would-be elitists using the enormous power granted them by the First Amendment, not to report the truth, but to silence a critic of whom they disapprove.

All of this would be bad enough if the media represented any kind of real elite. In truth they are little more than an untutored, emotionally immature rabble who lack both the insight and the life experience to comment intelligently upon the events they presume to cover. Take, for example, the Gulf War. The nonsense spewed by the mainstream press just prior to the commencement of hostilities beggars belief. The Iraqi Army was seen as a formidable military organization capable of inflicting "thousands of casualties" upon the U.S. forces and those of its allies. The press outdid themselves demonstrating their total, abject ignorance of all things military. Most of them were boomer-brats who grew up loathing the military. They seemed to wear their ignorance on their sleeve as a badge of honor.

In one memorable piece of buffoonery, Ted Koppell interviewed Edward Lutwach, whom he represented to his viewers as a "military expert." Lutwach proceeded to expound upon a very limited Iraqi reconnaissance in force, that had been stopped in its tracks and pounded to pieces, as an ominous portent of things to come. He then went on to characterize it as being comparable to the Tet offensive during the Vietnam War. This was a bit much even for Koppell, who seemed to do a double-take, although his questions were hesitant and non-committal. What other enterprise could get away with peddling such shoddy goods? Here we have a nationwide "news" program, with a "distinguished" host, that is supposed to provide vital information to the public on a matter of grave concern to all of us, trafficking in the most ludicrous and abject nonsense -- and there is no penalty for doing so. A legitimate business would go belly-up overnight for unloading such garbage on an unsuspecting public.


Speaking of garbage, the Boston Globe ran an editorial on November 22 that extolled the "FBI's commendable report to the public on TWA Flight 800's destruction." The editorial quoted the star of the CIA's "commendable" cartoon presentation, FBI spokesman James Kallstrom (who hardly seems to know one end of an airplane from the other, although he appears to be in charge of the FBI's "accident" investigation) as saying that the main reason for "his detailed explanation of the researchers' findings" was to counteract the effect of the "conspiracy theorists." Now that is an interesting perspective -- normally the purpose of such an investigation is to determine the cause of the mishap, not to counter somebody's opinion about it.

Alas, poor Kallstrom was forced to concede that "no matter how much evidence to the contrary has been presented to them, some people" would just go on believing the evidence of their eyes, or their conclusions based on common sense, or technical insight, instead of the slickly packaged boob bait ginned up by CIA propagandists. All right, he didn't phrase it quite that way, but that's my interpretation.

The editorial did not mention the nature of the "evidence" presented by Kallstrom. No doubt it was way over the heads of the writers at the Boston Globe. Nevertheless, they are prepared to commend the "report" and give it their seal of approval. (See how easy it is to be a mainstream editorial writer, handing down instant evaluations of technical issues that are beyond your ken? It isn't as though you really have to know anything about anything -- an authoritative rumble is usually enough to enable a mainstream writer to bluff his way through even the trickiest editorializing these days).

The celebrated 14-minute video tape was concocted by the CIA to convince us that eyewitnesses who "thought they saw" a streak of light ascend into the sky and "mistook" it for a missile, really must have seen something else.

James Hall, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board points out that the closest eyewitness was 10 miles away from the aircraft when the explosion occurred. Referring to the 244 witnesses whose sightings were mentioned on the tape, Hall said, "Most of these witnesses reported that the sound of an explosion or a flash of light drew their attention to the direction of the airplane."

Kallstrom was even more explicit at his news conference. "All the witnesses saw events that happened after the center tank blew up," he told the assembled reporters.

James Sanders, author of a book titled "The Downing of TWA Flight 800," characterized the assertion in the CIA tape that all of the eyewitnesses first heard a noise as "a lie," during a recent radio interview with Michael Reagan. He claims that at least twenty people saw a missile before it hit Flight 800. According to Sanders, "They saw it rise either from the ocean or over the horizon slowly and burst and then saw it accelerate and then Flight 800 came down." He said that the FBI and the CIA have access to these people.

David Hendrix wrote in the November 23 Riversides-Enterprise that Sanders has accused the CIA of selectively choosing "244 eyewitnesses from among more than 400 interviewed," in order to discredit the missile theory.

A retired naval officer who has been conducting his own investigation into the TWA-800 incident, Cdr. William S. Donaldson, noted in a letter to Hall last summer that while the NTSB had "accepted eye witness statements attributing lightning as the ignition source of the Iranian Air Force 747 tank explosion 21 years ago" which statements were cited in the board's 1996 Safety Recommendation, they have ignored more than 30 "extremely credible TWA FL800 eyewitnesses, some of whom were combat veteran military pilots who actually saw the ignition source of TWA FL800."

Donaldson cites several eyewitnesses like Mr. Roland Penney and a group of eight other people who "not only saw a missile-likeobject rise up from the haze at sea leaving a thin gray smoke trail, but distinctly describe a bright white flash, 'like a flashbulb' when it hit TWA FL800." He notes that all of these observations "preceded aircraft breakup and subsequent explosions and fuel ignitions."

Describing Mr Penny's statement as "a perfect layman's description of a successful missile engagement with warhead detonation," Donaldson goes on to describe a bright, white flash of light that could not be caused by a kerosene air explosion, especially under atmospheric conditions at 13,700 ft, the altitude of the aircraft when it exploded. Donaldson mentioned that nobody from the NTSB had interviewed Mr. Penny or his friends.

The CIA videotape entered the twilight zone however, when it asserted that witnesses who thought the flash of light they saw ascend into the sky, and believed was a missile, were really seeing the aircraft climb 3200 feet just after the center fuel tank exploded, and the nose fell off.


Apparently they are unaware that engineers have ways of doing "reality checks" upon such brash statements. Some of the news accounts have suggested that the CIA cartoon video was based on a "simulation" although it is not clear that the CIA or Kallstrom have made any such claim. The simulation of an aircraft that is in the process of disintegrating is problematical at best. It would be necessary to know which parts fell off and when. This necessarily involves a certain amount of guesswork when all one really knows is the distribution of the debris on the ocean floor. Nevertheless, it is possible to make certain determinations on the basis of the debris field. For example, the NTSB "Sequencing Report" tells us that Fuselage pieces recovered from the "red zone" were originally located at fuselage station 1000. The "red zone" is the recovery area where most of the cockpit debris was found, thus it seems that the forward section of the fuselage, all the way to the front of the wing root separated shortly after the explosion in the center fuel tank. This is confirmed by statements made by Donaldson, Sanders and others.

Now fuselage station 1000 would be located 83 feet aft of the aircraft's nose. That is a pretty big chunk of an airplane that is 220 feet long. There can be no doubt that such a catastrophic event as the separation of almost 40 percent of the aircraft's fuselage would utterly destroy its longitudinal static stability.

I was able to locate a data base of aircraft coefficients for the Boeing 747 comprising three flight conditions in the following reference: Airplane Flight Dynamics and Automatic Flight Controls, published by the University of Kansas. These coefficients would be suitable for use in an aircraft simulation, unfortunately, most of them would have to be radically altered to reflect the "structural modifications."

I was, however, able to make use of them to determine the "static margin" of the undamaged aircraft. That, in effect, is the moment arm through which the lift vector acts to rotate the aircraft about its center of gravity. If you will recall the "seesaw" analogy from last week's column, when an aircraft loses its static stability, the lift vector is located forward of the center of gravity (which acts as the pivot of the seesaw). If this moment arm can be determined for the "truncated" aircraft, it should be possible to make a rough estimate of the angular acceleration of the aircraft about its pitch axis after the nose fell off. The relationship is simply:

Pitching Moment = Moment of Inertia X Pitch Acceleration

In level flight the lift force will equal the weight of the aircraft. The pitching moment will be equal to the lift times the moment arm through which it acts, which will depend upon how far aft the center of gravity has shifted.

Now suppose we had a 220 foot long seesaw and we decided to saw 83 feet off one end. In order to get the thing back into balance it would be necessary to move the pivot back half the distance that was removed from the end, or 41.5 feet. But the fuselage of an aircraft is not uniform throughout, and the aircraft's weight is not uniformly distributed. So, just to be conservative, I moved the center of gravity back only 21 feet. From the aircraft data I was able to estimate the static margin at about 7 feet, thus the moment arm I used was 7 - 21 = -14 feet. That gave me a pitching moment of 7 million foot pounds. The moment of inertia obtained from the reference previously cited is 33 million slug ft sq. (Actually, it would be a good deal less, since the front of the aircraft has fallen off, but it is conservative to use that number). Thus the pitch acceleration can be estimated as:

7,000,000 ft lb / 33,000,000 slug ft sq. = 0.212 rad/sec sq. = 12.15 deg/sec sq.

As we shall see, that is a pretty brisk acceleration. To obtain the pitch rate at a given time it is only necessary to multiply the (constant) acceleration by the time elapsed since the nose fell off. The pitch angle can be obtained by averaging the pitch rate over time and multiplying the average pitch rate by the elapsed time. (For those familiar with calculus, the same result will be obtained by integrating the pitch acceleration twice with respect to time). The bottom line is that we can now estimate the pitch angle of the aircraft at a given time from the relationship:

pitch angle = pitch acceleration X (time squared) / 2

Plugging in the numbers, we find that the aircraft has pitched 6 degrees in 1 second, 24 degrees in 2 seconds, 55 degrees in 3 seconds and 97 degrees in 4 seconds. This is somewhat academic since the aircraft will most likely have stalled somewhere between 2 and 3 seconds. At the time the stall condition occurs, the lift force will dissipate. However, there is a large drag force, acting upon the gaping hole in the fuselage, that will continue to push the remnant of the airplane "over the top."

But that is neither here nor there. The object of this "reality check" was to determine whether it is reasonable to suppose that a 747 will "continue to climb" 3200 feet after losing 83 feet of fuselage in front of the wings. According to the CIA/Kallstrom cartoon, the aircraft climbed for 20 seconds in it's truncated condition. Basic stability considerations suggest that it would stall in about one-tenth that time, at the outside.

I realize that this is a very quick and dirty calculation, and that there are many other things to be considered. Nevertheless one cannot simply ignore basic principles. It is just a fact of life that an aircraft will rotate much faster about its pitch axis than it will change directions through the air. That is why aircraft stall. In order for the aircraft to pull up for 20 seconds it would be necessary that the pilot maintain a reasonable angle of attack by controlling the elevators, but that would not have been possible since the pilot departed with the nose. In any event, he would have been unable to control the effects of such radical instability.


Perhaps the most foolish theory to emanate from the public relations flacks who appear to be controlling the direction of this investigation was the suggestion that people who claim to have seen a missile approach TWA-800 were actually seeing fuel streaming from the ruptured tanks ignite. The flacks didn't actually have the guts to take responsibility for this bit of fantasy, but it seems clear that they put the media up to spreading this story, knowing full well what a load of rubbish it is. The basic scenario was described by Bob Riordan in an article that appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

"...if a stream of jet fuel is ignited as it falls from the plane, flames will shoot UP. The stream of flame could resemble a missile trail ending in the fireball of the plane. Observers could have a problem realizing that the fuel came from the plane."

What's wrong with this notion? In the first place, fuel would not fall from an aircraft traveling at 400 mph in a "stream." It would be aspirated into a cloud of tiny droplets which, if ignited, would resemble a fireball, not a bright streak. Most likely, unless ignited at the source, the fuel would quickly become dispersed in the atmosphere and nothing would happen. In the second place, what would ignite the "stream" of fuel from the "bottom up"? Nobody has suggested an answer to that one, but then nobody who had passed high school physics would consider it anyway.

Mr. Riordan devotes the rest of his column to speculating about the possibility that metal fatigue was responsible for the crash of TWA-800. I hate to be such a wet blanket, but that is one of the first things checked in an aircraft accident investigation. In fact, aircraft structures are checked for fatigue cracks on a regular basis.


Everybody seems to agree that there was an explosion in the center fuel tank. The point of contention would seem to be what caused the fuel to explode. Cdr. Donaldson points out the two ways an explosive atmosphere could be produced in the fuel tank of a Boeing 747:

A highly volatile fuel such as JP4 or JetB, subjected to elevated temperatures for a time could produce a potentially explosive mixture of fuel vapor and air. That, essentially, is the assumption made by the official investigation. The problem with this assumption is that the Jet A-1 fuel used by TWA-800 is of low volatility.

An explosive mixture of fuel droplets and air can be formed when a low volatility fuel such as Jet A-1, JP5 or JP8 is used, but only if there has been extreme agitation or shock to the tank.

It is Donaldson's contention that the overpressure produced by the explosion points to "mechanical misting of residual fuel as the internal primordial event."

In his letter to Hall, Donaldson pressed his point:

"Your agency has been depicting the volatility of the fuel as if it were nitro benzene however, the chemical properties of the Jet A-1 turbine fuel TWA FL800 was using had a huge margin of safety. It could not have been made to explode in the centerline tank except as a secondary event to another explosion."

Donaldson says that under ordinary conditions the fuel would not ignite unless "the fuel and container (tons of aluminum)" were heated to a temperature above 127 degrees F. However, "the one other way Jet A-1 could be made to explode is through physical misting of the fuel as accomplished by a fuel injector or through the kinetic shock provided by a high explosive 'booster.'"

The point, according to Donaldson, is that the residual fuel in the tank would have to be heated to between 130 and 160 degree F. But if a shock were applied to the tank the same effect would be produced at only 72 degrees F.

The one other fuel tank explosion known to have occurred in a Boeing 747 while in flight was an Iranian mishap mentioned by the NTSB in its Safety Recommendation of 13 December 1996. The report failed to mention, however, that the aircraft was not fueled with Jet A-1. Donaldson speculates that if it had been, the aircraft "would probably have landed safely because explosive vapors would not have been present to ignite."

In his criticism of an NTSB test of temperature increase in a 747 center wing tank, Donaldson pointed out that they had used only one temperature probe to record a 40 deg F temperature increase, citing the slow heat transfer in jet fuel due to its poor thermal conductivity. Furthermore, he points out, the test was performed in the desert, whereas the "TWA FL800 had just made a Transatlantic crossing prior to the two hour turnaround at New York, the tank and fuel were exposed to minus 67 degrees F stratospheric temperatures throughout that time." The aircraft used in the NTSB test had not been subjected to a comparable cold soak -- it had been sitting on a ramp in the desert.

At the time TWA-890 took off from New York ambient temperature was 77 degree F and falling and 29 degrees F at the explosion altitude.

On the day of the NTSB test in the desert, the temperature rose from 69.8 degree F to 95.0 degree F. Even so, the test aircraft fuel temperature did not get anywhere near 127 degrees. The moderate 77 degree F temperature at New York would not have caused TWA-800's air-conditioning packs to generate excessive heat.

In summarizing his points, Donaldson asserts that "no aircraft loaded with Jet A-1 has ever had or will ever have an internally ignited fuel tank explosion due to latent fuel vapor in the ullage."


Sanders said last week that the FBI's assertion that the red residue found on some of the seats "came from a patented adhesive and not solid fuel for missiles" is contradicted by the manufacturer of the seats used on TWA-800. The manufacturer told Sanders that his adhesive did not contain the same elements as those found in the independent testing performed by a laboratory to whom Sanders supplied a sample of the residue.

Fabric samples impregnated with the red residue were taken from three adjacent rows of seats and given to Sanders by a crash investigator who was working at the time on the Flight 800 mishap. The elements found in the test are said to be consistent with the ingredients found in solid rocket fuel, according to a missile specialist consulted by Sanders, who theorizes that the residue was deposited by a missile that passed through the fuselage.

Richard Russell, a retired 747 pilot and aviation safety specialist, said that a radar tape left in his mailbox last February shows an object approaching Flight 800 at a steady rate from the front while another is visible for a few brief seconds approaching from behind the 747.

It was later determined that the first blip was a Navy P-3 Orion. Last Tuesday Kallstrom identified the blip approaching from behind as Jet Express Flight 18. Russell's response was that if the second blip had been an aircraft it would have shown up on other tapes -- but it didn't. "I think that the coverup continues and that now what they are attempting to do is sell it to the American public," Russell commented.

Frederick Meyer, an attorney and former Air National Guard pilot, who witnessed the explosion of TWA-800 while piloting an Air National Guard rescue helicopter on the night of the crash, commented, "I saw the (CIA video) scenario. It just isn't what happened. They've changed the sequence of events." According to reporter David Hendrix, Meyer, a combat veteran who had missiles fired at his helicopter in Vietnam, "saw a streak approach the jetliner in a slight downward arc, two small but sharp explosions, and then the huge fireball that fell to the ocean."

Meanwhile, back at the Boston Globe, the editorial writers were beating up on easy targets such as Ian Goddard and Pierre Salinger.

"Salinger's gullibility may be taken as a telling paradigm for those weak spirits who feed on the conspiratorial garbage dumped on the Internet. Unfettered by the standards and peer review required of scholarship or the transparent sourcing of journalism, anonymous communicators on the Internet post up the most preposterous theories . . ."

As though they knew or understood anything about it. Peer review indeed. When is the last time any of these mainstream microcephalics took the trouble to consult an authority with a background in flight dynamics regarding the preposterous claims made by official sources with respect to unstable (pieces of) aircraft that are supposed to climb for 20 seconds while pitching up and disintegrating? The pomposity of these swaggering airheads is beyond comprehension. They are too busy licking the boots of the bureaucrats who hand feed them propaganda based on junk science to get a second opinion. And why not? They might have to do an honest day's work if the handouts stopped coming down from on high.

Underlying the Boston Globe's irrational outburst is a gnawing fear of the Internet in their future. People are beginning to understand what a bunch of blow-hards and know-nothings staff their daily newspaper and the newsies just can't figure out what to do about it, beyond resorting to the smear tactics that have served them so well in the past. The Globe concluded its diatribe on a petulant note:

"Unlike radio, which made possible the communication between a Fuehrer and his Volk, or the telephone, with its dialogue between individuals, the Internet realizes the anarchist's dream of an unmediated conversation between each and all. Government must not censor that conversation, but a society that fails to teach citizens the necessity of critical thinking risks being submerged in gullible Salingers."

Do you see where they are going with this? The nasty little swipe at talk radio? They are scared to death that citizens will start comparing notes on them and begin to grasp what they have been up to for the past few decades. Unmediated conversation between each and all? Quel horreur! We cannot allow the lower orders to converse with each other without the wise "mediation" of a higher authority. Egad sir! Why -- splut, splut -- that would be anarchy!

[ Edward Zehr can be reached at ]

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