Associated Retired Aviation Professionals
Post Office Box 90, Clements, Maryland 20624 USA

October 9, 2001

Captain Ray Lahr (ret)

18254 Coastline Drive

Malibu, CA  90265


Mr. Daniel D. Campbell

Managing Director

National Transportation Safety Board

Washington, D.C.  20594

Dear Mr. Campbell:

           What was the historical development of the hypothetical zoom-climb of TWA800? (A flaming zoom-climb was the pretext used to ignore hundreds of eyewitnesses.) 

            Apparently, the zoom-climb was conceived by CIA ANALYST #1 (his name has not been released to the public). Please refer to the transcript titled “Correspondence from the CIA and Transcript of the CIA to the Witness Group”, April 30, 1999, Docket No. SA-516, Appendix FF, page 79, line 17.   Mr. Walters, ALPA representative, is asking about the reports of a rising streak which was thought to be a missile by many eyewitnesses.

CIA ANALYST #1:  The conclusion that the eyewitnesses were only seeing the burning aircraft was made at 10:00 p.m. at night on the 30th of December 1996.

MR. WALTERS (ALPA):   Was it really?

CIA ANALYST #1:              Yes, as I was sitting behind the computer.  It’s - - up until then, what we’re doing is trying to interpret these reports the way you are now.  If it’s a streak, where is the streak originating from?  What external source could there be for the streak?  There was a realization, having all the data laid out, that you can explain what the eyewitnesses are seeing with only the burning aircraft.

MR. WALTERS:   So it was March then before the FBI or until you briefed - -

CIA ANALYST #1:   CIA Analyst #2 said something which is a good point.  CIA Analyst #2  said there are other issues.  Once you think you have an answer you have a lot of eyewitness reports. You have to go back through all of them. What we ended up doing then was placing very carefully all the eyewitness reports we were getting, and were continuing to get, on the mapping software.

            Also, I immediately alerted, I called - - the next morning I called the special agents I worked with at the FBI and explained what we were thinking.  Because I wanted to make sure that - - even though at that time it’s a conclusion, we don’t have it fully documented.  We wanted them to be aware of this so that they could start proceeding with the investigation and having that initial piece of information.    End quote.

            Thus, the CIA reached its conclusion on December 30,1996.  The FBI was alerted on December 31, 1996 so that the FBI could point its investigation in that direction.  It is not clear when the NTSB was brought into the loop. However, neither you nor Mr. Loeb objected to this statement by CIA Analyst #1, so we can assume that the NTSB joined in the zoom-climb conclusion sometime after December 30, 1996.

            So what information did the CIA use to reach its conclusion?  The DD/CIA/OTI  (the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Office of Transnational Issues  - once again the name was withheld) summarized the information provided to the CIA starting on page 4, line 1:

DD/CIA/OTI:  Over the course of our work, the FBI provided us with summaries of statements from 244 people who claimed to have witnessed the crash or its aftermath.

            These summaries did not all arrive at the same time, but were provided over a period of 14 months.  Some reports contained sight and sound observations and most included information that could be used to determine the location of eyewitnesses at the time of the crash. CIA analysts relied on these summaries and did not independently interview any eyewitnesses (my underline), although on one occasion they accompanied FBI special agents when the FBI reinterviewed two eyewitnesses.

            The FBI provided us with the following National Transportation Safety Board material: two sets of radar tracking data.  One was from a radar at Islip providing data sampled once every 4.6 seconds; the other was from a radar at Riverhead providing data sampled once every 12 seconds.  They provided us: The precise time of - - the aircraft’s location, altitude, speed and heading at the moment the CVR and FDR ceased operating; A salvage map showing the approximate locations where some of the Flight 800 debris were found; Meteorological data, including winds aloft.

            The FBI also provided us with NTSB’s observations that an abrupt sound was recorded just before the CVR stopped operating, that no other unusual activity was recorded either on the CVR or the FDR, that the front third of the aircraft was believed to have separated from the fuselage, from the main fuselage, soon after the initial explosion.

            CIA analysts also visited the aircraft reconstruction hangar at Calverton on several different occasions.

            Additional information and tools that we obtained independently included infrared data from a military satellite; Delorme Version 4.0 Street Atlas USA mapping software to plot the relative locations of the eyewitnesses; and detailed maps of the Long Island area.  Our analysis of the FBI summaries took more than a year and required more than 2000 man-hours of work.     End quote.

           Well, the FBI conducted about 750 eyewitness interviews. Only 244 interviews were provided to the CIA, and this was over a 14 month period.  The CIA reached its conclusion five and a half months into the investigation.  The CIA had probably seen less than half of the 244 interviews when it reached its conclusion.  There were nine radars covering the crash site.  The CIA only saw data from the Islip and Riverhead radars.  Actually, the JFK radar was the most useful for tracking primary returns.  So at 10:00 p.m. on December 30, 1996, based on the above partial information, a conclusion was made that the eyewitnesses did not see a missile, the eyewitnesses only saw a burning aircraft.  In my opinion, this was the official beginning of a cooperative effort by only the CIA, the FBI and the NTSB to make the rest of the investigation fit this predetermined conclusion. All other interested parties such as ALPA, Boeing, and TWA were excluded. 

            But what about all of the eyewitnesses who saw what looked like a missile rising from the surface towards TWA800 just prior to the explosion?  Ah, this required a little ingenuity. It was hypothesized that due to a spark from an unknown source, the center fuel tank (CFT) spontaneously exploded and blew the nose off of TWA800. The aircraft pitched up and zoom-climbed 3,000 feet while trailing flames.  The eyewitnesses didn’t see the CFT explode and blow the nose off of TWA800, but they heard the sound and they looked up in time to see the aircraft climbing and trailing flames.  However, they were so far away that the flaming aircraft looked like a missile.  Wow!  Now that took imagination. 

            But wasn’t the press and the public interested in the eyewitness reports?  Sure, but the eyewitnesses were walled off.  The FBI conducted all of the interviews and did not allow participation by the NTSB and the other parties to the investigation.  The eyewitnesses were assigned numbers so that their identity could be kept secret.  The eyewitnesses were not allowed to testify at the public hearing nor was their testimony even discussed or entered into the public record.  This was an unprecedented procedure for a public accident investigation.  It violated all of the rules. 

            But what about the zoom-climb?  Surely the other parties to the investigation such as ALPA, Boeing and TWA wouldn’t buy that scenario.  Well, the other parties had to be excluded from that part of the investigation.  But how?  Well, by having the CIA develop the zoom-climb scenario, the other parties could not get behind the CIA closed doors to see what was going on.  Using information supplied by the NTSB, the CIA worked on this scenario for much of 1997, and the CIA developed a cartoon animation of the zoom-climb scenario.  But shouldn’t the flight path of the crippled aircraft (including the zoom-climb) have been a part of the NTSB investigation?   Yes, certainly, so this required another violation of the rules.  Normally, a group including the other interested parties would be formed to investigate the flight path.  In this investigation, no group was formed.  The NTSB excluded ALPA, Boeing, TWA, and the other interested parties from the zoom-climb portion of the investigation.  Privately, using the same information that the NTSB furnished to the CIA, the NTSB developed a modified version of the zoom-climb. 

The CIA was not an official party to the NTSB investigation. Why was the CIA animation produced and how was it used?  Well, it was used to preempt the NTSB investigation.  This was another violation of accident investigation protocol.  No government agency other than the NTSB should announce conclusions about a NTSB accident investigation while the accident investigation is in progress.  However, the FBI went on prime-time national television in November 1997 and featured the CIA cartoon.  By endorsing the CIA zoom-climb to discredit the eyewitnesses, the FBI justified its own withdrawal from the criminal investigation.  This was done prior to the NTSB public hearing in December 1997, and prior to the release of the TWA800 accident report.  Thus the FBI presentation and the CIA animation biased the NTSB investigation and public opinion before the NTSB investigation was completed and presented to the public. 

Going back to the CIA Briefing Transcript, Page 6, line 16:

DD/CIA/OTI:   Over the next 10 months [after 12-30-96] we were in continuous contact with the FBI as we documented and refined our work.  It took about a month for CIA analysts to vet the analysis internally and prepare a formal briefing for the FBI investigators and special agents.  This briefing took place in Calverton on 6 February 1997.  We provided a written summary of CIA’s analysis to FBI Director James Kallstrom on 28 March 1997.   CIA analysts briefed their work to Mr. Kallstrom on 18 June 1997, and again on 22 October 1997 at his request.

            At the conclusion of the October session, Mr. Kallstrom expressed his desire to use the CIA video “TWA Flight 800:  What Did the Eyewitnesses See?” at his news conference announcing the suspension of the criminal investigation, scheduled for the following month.  The CIA concurred and prepared the videotape for public release.

End quote.

            Mr. Campbell, since you participated in this CIA briefing, I would welcome any comments or corrections that you might offer to the above history of the hypothetical zoom-climb of TWA800.  Hopefully, you will concur with the above sequence of events.  Please reply to the address on the heading, or to my phone (310) 459 2232, or to my fax (310) 454 1372, or to my e-mail


Ray Lahr


Open letter


Home - Last Updated: 
 © 2000 William S. Donaldson III.  All rights reserved