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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reading List: TWA 800

Cashill, Jack. TWA 800. Washington: Regnery History, 2016. ISBN 978-1-62157-471-2.
On the evening of July 17th, 1996, TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 bound from New York to Paris, exploded 12 minutes after takeoff, its debris falling into the Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors: all 230 passengers and crew died. The disaster happened in perfect weather, and there were hundreds of witnesses who observed from land, sea, and air. There was no distress call from the airliner before its transponder signal dropped out; whatever happened appeared to be near-instantaneous.

Passenger airliners are not known for spontaneously exploding en route: there was no precedent for such an occurrence in the entire history of modern air travel. Responsibility for investigating U.S. civil transportation accidents including air disasters falls to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who usually operates in conjunction with personnel from the aircraft and engine manufacturers, airline, and pilots' union. Barely was the investigation of TWA 800 underway, however, when the NTSB was removed as lead agency and replaced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which usually takes the lead only when criminal activity has been determined to be the cause. It is very unusual for the FBI to take charge of an investigation while debris from the crash is still being recovered, no probable cause has been suggested,, and no terrorist or other organisation has claimed responsibility for the incident. Early FBI communications to news media essentially assumed the airliner had been downed by a bomb on-board or possibly a missile launched from the ground.

The investigation that followed was considered highly irregular by experienced NTSB personnel and industry figures who had participated in earlier investigations. The FBI kept physical evidence, transcripts of interviews with eyewitnesses, and other information away from NTSB investigators. All of this is chronicled in detail in First Strike, a 2003 book by the author and independent journalist James Sanders, who was prosecuted by the U.S. federal government for his attempt to have debris from the crash tested for evidence of residue from missile propellant and/or explosives.

The investigation concluded that Flight 800 was destroyed by an explosion in the centre fuel tank, due to a combination of mechanical and electrical failures which had happened only once before in the eighty year history of aviation and has never happened since. This ruled out terrorism or the action of a hostile state party, and did not perturb the Clinton administration's desire to project an image of peace and prosperity while heading into the re-election campaign. By the time the investigation report was issued, the crash was “old news”, and the testimony of the dozens of eyewitnesses who reported sightings consistent with a missile rising toward the aircraft was forgotten.

This book, published on the twentieth anniversary of the loss of TWA 800, is a retrospective on the investigation and report on subsequent events. In the intervening years, the author was able to identify a number of eyewitnesses identified only by number in the investigation report, and discuss the plausibility of the official report's findings with knowledgeable people in a variety of disciplines. He reviews some new evidence which has become available, and concludes the original investigation was just as slipshod and untrustworthy as it appeared to many at the time.

What happened to TWA 800? We will probably never know for sure. There were so many irregularities in the investigation, with evidence routinely made available in other inquiries withheld from the public, that it is impossible to mount an independent review at this remove. Of the theories advanced shortly after the disaster, the possibility of a terrorist attack involving a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile (MANPADS) can be excluded because missiles which might have been available to potential attackers are incapable of reaching the altitude at which the 747 was flying. A bomb smuggled on board in carry-on or checked luggage seems to have been ruled out by the absence of the kinds of damage to the recovered aircraft structure and interior as well as the bodies of victims which would be consistent with a high-energy detonation within the fuselage.

One theory advanced shortly after the disaster and still cited today is that the plane was brought down by an Iranian SA-2 surface to air missile. The SA-2 (NATO designation) or S-75 Dvina is a two stage antiaircraft missile developed by the Soviet Union and in service from 1957 to the present by a number of nations including Iran, which operates 300 launchers purchased from the Soviet Union/Russia and manufactures its own indigenous version of the missile. The SA-2 easily has the performance needed to bring down an airliner at TWA 800's altitude (it was an SA-2 which shot down a U-2 overflying the Soviet Union in 1960), and its two stage design, with a solid fuel booster and storable liquid fuel second stage and “swoop above, dive to attack” profile is a good match for eyewitness reports. Iran had a motive to attack a U.S. airliner: in July 1988, Iran Air 655, an Airbus A300, was accidentally shot down by a missile launched by the U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes, killing all 290 on board. The theory argued that the missile, which requires a large launcher and radar guidance installation, was launched from a ship beneath the airliner's flight path. Indeed, after the explosion, a ship was detected on radar departing the scene at a speed in excess of twenty-five knots. The ship has never been identified. Those with knowledge of the SA-2 missile system contend that adapting it for shipboard installation would be very difficult, and would require a large ship which would be unlikely to evade detection.

Another theory pursued and rejected by the investigation is that TWA 800 was downed by a live missile accidentally launched from a U.S. Navy ship, which was said to be conducting missile tests in the region. This is the author's favoured theory, for which he advances a variety of indirect evidence. To me this seems beyond implausible. Just how believable is it that a Navy which was sufficiently incompetent to fire a live missile from U.S. waters into airspace heavily used by civilian traffic would then be successful in covering up such a blunder, which would have been witnessed by dozens of crew members, for two decades?

In all, I found this book unsatisfying. There is follow up on individuals who appeared in First Strike, and some newly uncovered evidence, but nothing which, in my opinion, advances any of the theories beyond where they stood 13 years ago. If you're interested in the controversy surrounding TWA 800 and the unusual nature of the investigation that followed, I recommend reading the original book, which is available as a Kindle edition. The print edition is no longer available from the publisher, but used copies are readily available and inexpensive.

For the consensus account of TWA 800, here is an episode of “Air Crash Investigation” devoted to the disaster and investigation. The 2001 film Silenced, produced and written by the author, presents the testimony of eyewitnesses and parties to the investigation which calls into doubt the conclusions of the official report.

Posted at November 15, 2016 23:04