sitemap Donaldson Letter to the Wall Street Journal

Text of Letter Published in The Wall Street Journal

April 24, 1997

What May Have Happened to Flight 800

"When faced with the choice of believing Mr. Hall or the eyesight of military aviators,
I'll stick with the professionals."

William S. Donaldson

I couldn't let Jim Hall's April 11 Letter to the Editor go without mention of salient facts ("Flight 800: It Wasn't a Missile").   I was a Navy carrier pilot for 25 years and a crash investigator. Mr. Hall made two statements that are markedly unscientific:

"We know that an explosive fuel air vapor mixture existed in the center fuel tank."

Wrong. We most definitely don't know that. Aviation kerosene cannot be induced to burn at temperatures below 100 degrees Fahrenheit (flash point), and will not propagate fire until 400 degrees Fahrenheit (auto ignition temperature) is reached.

In addition, the only source of heat to the center fuel tank would be air-conditioning packs operating on the ground with power supplied by the aircraft auxiliary power unit in the tail. Once the engines start, these packs cool immediately. This tank is also vented through the wings to the atmosphere in flight, which prevents the buildup of heat or vapor pressure. This is precisely why B747/100s have logged tens of millions of flying hours without a single fuel tank explosion. This is a particularly misleading point because reportedly the investigation has yet to be able to deliberately cause an explosion in a B747 tank on the ground.

"After finding more than 90% of the wreckage we have found no physical evidence that a bomb or missile was involved."

Again, Mr. Hall's statement is misleading to laymen. Investigators familiar with properties of anti-aircraft missiles would not expect to find missile evidence in the main debris field. If a missile caused this mishap by either a warhead bursting close aboard or a direct hit with a dud warhead, the extreme velocity of the missile would cause incriminating debris to be ejected as far as five miles from the main wreckage footprint on the sea floor. The problem the investigator has would be akin to trying to prove an aluminum can shot through with an aluminum bullet then dropped into a metal shredder was actually hit by the bullet. You could recover 100% of the shredded can and still not have definitive proof.

Mr. Hall wrote not one word about eyewitnesses. The FBI is reported to have interviewed more than 100 eyewitnesses, more than 30 of whom were considered to be extremely reliable. This list includes airborne military pilots. What many witnesses describe fits the depiction of a successful surface-to-air missile engagement. Mr. Hall's logic would have us believe that a pedestrian killed by a hit-and-run driver in front of 30 eyewitnesses died from unexplained natural causes. He would discount all eyewitnesses simply because the victim's body showed no evidence of tire marks.

If Flight 800 was struck by a missile, it most assuredly was neither friendly fire nor hit by a heat seeker. American soldiers and sailors could not be forced to remain silent in a conspiracy of that magnitude. Additionally, Flight 800 was out of range and too rugged a target for the generic family of man-portable U.S. and Russian heat seekers. So what's left?  There remains U.S., British, French and Soviet-bloc anti-aircraft missile systems in various parts of the world that would be capable of a fatal attack and easily loaded aboard any seagoing vessel. A tactically knowledgeable captain of said vessel would position 20 miles off shore (just below the visual and radar horizon of Long Island) a few miles east of JFK's primary climb corridor for Europe. He would monitor departure control on VHF radio, wait until sundown for a target of opportunity, uncover the system, shoot, then run for deep water. Once past the 1,000-Fathom curve running without lights, the remains of the optical- or radar-guided mobile SAM system would be rolled overboard into the deep. A fresh coat of paint over exhaust gas marks on the deck before first light would complete the mission.

Maybe it happened this way or maybe not. But one thing I am certain of: When faced with the choice of believing Mr. Hall or the eyesight of military aviators, I'll stick with the professionals.

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