Reassembling TWA Flight 800
Was TWA Flight 800 brought down by US friendly fire?
by Brian Dunning
May 6, 2008
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July 17, 1996 — My wife and I were on our honeymoon, flying out of New York City. We got out all right, but one of the planes just behind us wasn't quite so lucky. TWA Flight 800, an older Boeing 747 jumbo, took off and headed out over the Atlantic Ocean. About twelve minutes after its departure, at about 13,700 feet, an explosion broke the aircraft in half just forward of the wing. All 230 people on board were killed.
The NTSB (National Transportation and Safety Board) managed to recover all 230 bodies, and over 95% of the wreckage from the ocean floor, which is pretty incredible. They reconstructed the aircraft to understand what went wrong. What was found, and what nobody disputes, is that the principal destruction was caused by an explosion of the fuel in the center wing fuel tank. What has never been determined is what triggered that explosion. Conspiracy theorists immediately jumped on this, and concluded that the aircraft must have been shot down by the US government, either deliberately or as accidental friendly fire.
Fuel was thrown on this fire from two principal sources. The first source was a number of eyewitness reports from people who saw a second brightly lit object going up into the sky and contacting the aircraft, a description which certainly sounds like a missile attacking the aircraft. The second cause of conspiratorial speculation was triggered by the government itself. The FBI, who was investigating the crash to see if it was a criminal act, engaged the CIA to produce a computer animation showing what the aircraft did after it exploded, in order to answer the questions of the families of the victims. According to the NTSB, when the nose broke off the aircraft, that made it tail heavy and it veered sharply upward for several thousand feet, burning all the way, thus looking like a missile. The FBI had no available computer animation resources of their own, so they had the CIA do it. And, once the CIA became involved, that screamed out to every conspiracy theorist in the world that the whole operation was a clandestine government coverup.
The aircraft was two and a half miles up, and about nine miles offshore, when it exploded. That puts the coastline just about exactly one minute away at the speed of sound. The vast majority of the eyewitnesses were between one minute and two minutes away, as sound travels. The majority of the 38 eyewitnesses who reported a skybound streak that's been described as a missile trail only turned to look after they heard the explosion. This means that for at least two minutes after the plane exploded, something happened that looked to many eyewitnesses like a missile going up. Remember, the majority of people who reported that it looked like a missile struck the aircraft, did not start watching until at least one minute after the explosion happened. Therefore, in most cases of people who said it was absolutely a missile, the laws of physics make it impossible that they could have seen such a missile. We know for a fact that what the aircraft did one minute after it exploded, looked enough like a missile to convince many eyewitnesses that it couldn't possibly have been anything else. In all of these cases, whatever they saw happened after any theorized missile would have detonated.
One of the conspiracy web sites, Flight800.org, has a page giving testimony from witnesses who believe that they distinctly saw two separate objects, a missile and a plane, converge. As you listen, pay attention to when the witnesses heard the sound relative to what they saw:
Witness 73: ...While keeping her eyes on the aircraft, she observed a 'red streak' moving up from the ground toward the aircraft at an approximately a 45 degree angle. The 'red streak' was leaving a light gray colored smoke trail... At the instant the smoke trail ended at the aircraft's right wing, she heard a loud sharp noise which sounded like a firecracker had just exploded at her feet. She then observed a fire at the aircraft followed by one or two secondary explosions which had a deeper sound. She then observed the front of the aircraft separate from the back.
Witness 88: ...All of a sudden he heard an explosion. He glanced over to the southeast and observed what he thought was a firework ascending into the sky. All of a sudden, it apparently reached the top of its flight... At this point he observed an airplane come into the field of view. He stated that the bright red object ran into the airplane and upon doing so both the plane and the object turned a real bright red then exploded into a huge plume of flame.
Witness 675: ...Noticed an orange flare ascending from the south... trailing white or light gray smoke. He then observed the flare strike what looked like an eastbound Cessna airplane on the port side... Within five (5) seconds... he heard what sounded like thunder and felt the ground shake.
Witness 145: ...She saw a plane and noticed an object spiraling towards the plane. The object which she saw for about one second, had a glow at the end of it and a gray/white smoke trail... She heard a loud noise and saw an explosion just as the object hit the plane. The plane dropped towards the water and appeared to split in two pieces. A few seconds later, she heard another explosion.
Whether you're a conspiracy theorist or not, the 1-minute minimum delay required by the speed of sound clearly makes it impossible to corroborate what these people heard with what they think they saw. This illustrates why the witness testimony, while still valuable, cannot be relied on as the definitive explanation for what happened. Anecdotal evidence has value for suggesting directions to research, but it does not by itself constitute evidence, and cannot reasonably be treated as such.
Anyway, who could have fired a missile? The FBI did identify some military assets that were in the area at the time, including a US Navy P3 Orion aircraft, and a US Coast Guard cutter. Neither asset has an anti-aircraft or missile capability. Radar data from four different sites also found four unidentified boats within 6nm of Flight 800, all but one of which responded to assist in search and rescue. Shoulder launched weapons do not have anything like the range required to reach the aircraft from the shore.
There's one final loose end that nobody has been able to definitively tie up, and that's the discovery of explosives residue on the debris. Although the conspiracy theorists charge that the NTSB has covered up this discovery, in fact the NTSB has freely and openly disclosed everything about it. It's known that no high energy explosives detonated on board the aircraft, because there is zero evidence of explosives damage anywhere. The best theory is that this residue is left over from exercises conducted with bomb-sniffing dogs on board the plane several months before. Conspiracy theorists charge that no such tests were conducted aboard this plane, but all available records indicate that they were. As a result of this theory, the NTSB made recommendations changing the procedures of such tests to prevent such explosives residue from contaminating other aircraft in the future.
If you do a Google search for "TWA Flight 800", most of the results are from conspiracy web sites that uncritically start with the assumption that the US government shot down the aircraft. These web sites then present opinion, conjecture, and hypothetical extrapolation that support that assumption. Sometimes you'll hear conspiracy theorists charge that the NTSB ignores eyewitness reports, or suppresses anything that doesn't agree with their official story of an accident. Anyone who's a pilot or an aviation nut knows that this couldn't be further from the truth. Go to NTSB.gov and click on Aviation Accident Database. Search for some recent accidents, as these will show you what an investigation looks like in progress. What you'll see are the facts that are known, and you'll see any eyewitness reports there might be. What you won't see is anything like an explanation or a theory, and certainly nothing like an "official story" that anyone is sticking to.
If you want to see what a final report looks like, go to NTSB.gov. The final report is a huge 341-page PDF document with 17,000 pages of supporting documentation. Here's a quote from the summary:
The source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but, of the sources evaluated by the investigation, the most likely was a short circuit outside of the CWT (center wing fuel tank) that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system.
In the full report, the NTSB goes through other possible causes for the explosion of the center fuel tank, including:
A lightning or meteorite strike; a missile fragment; a small explosive charge placed on the CWT; auto ignition or hot surface ignition, resulting from elevated temperatures produced by sources external to the CWT; a fire migrating to the CWT from another fuel tank via the vent (stringer) system; an uncontained engine failure or a turbine burst in the air conditioning packs beneath the CWT; a malfunctioning CWT jettison/override pump; a malfunctioning CWT scavenge pump; and static electricity.
There's no need to repeat their findings on each of these causes here, if you're interested you can grab the full report and read section 2.3.1. In each case, the potential cause was found to be unlikely, unsupported by any evidence, and lacking evidence that would have resulted. Section 3.1 of the report lists their findings, which are facts that were determined with certainty. Among these: "The in-flight breakup of TWA flight 800 was not initiated by a bomb or a missile strike."
Of course, this doesn't change the mind of a die-hard conspiracy theorist, because this government-produced paper is simply part of the conspiracy. In fact, they consider the report's very existence as further evidence of the conspiracy. When you hear a conspiracy theory that provides no testable evidence of its own, but relies only on anecdotal testimonies, extrapolations of possible motivations, and non-evidenced claims of implausible coverups, you have every good reason to be skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Reassembling TWA Flight 800." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
6 May 2008. Web.
29 May 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4099>
References & Further Reading
Barreveld, D. The Spark That Killed 230 People: The Scary Details of the NTSB's Final Report of the Crash of TWA Flight 800. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Inc., 2002.
Hall, J., Hammerschmidt, J., Goglia, J., Black, G., Carmody, C. NTSB Abstract AAR-00/03. Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 2000.
Krause, Shari Stamford. Aircraft Safety : Accident Investigations, Analyses, & Applications, Second Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003. 399-415.
Van Natta Jr., D. "Navy Retrieves 2 Black Boxes from Sea Floor." New York Times. 25 Jul. 1996, Newspaper.
Vankin, Jonathan, Whalen, John. The 80 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2004. 447-457.
Wald, Matthew L. "T.W.A. Crash Investigators Ridicule a Missile Theory and Pin Hopes on Research." New York Times. 14 Mar. 1997, March 14, 1997: B1.
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