Associated Retired Aviation Professionals

AIR FORCES MONTHLY #104 - NOVEMBER 1996, pp. 16-21



by  Ronald W. Lewis

We are at war, a new kind of air war. Those aboard TWA Flight 800 were the most recent casualties of this war, but they are not the first--and will not be the last.

The enemy is a terrorist willing to shoot down civilian airliners and wage economic warfare against the lifeblood of air transport. Imagine what would happen to a nation's economy if a small team of attackers could, at will, launch surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at its airliners and escape before anybody even realized what happened. Business travel, commercial air freight shipments, mail delivery and diplomatic exchanges would all be at risk, thus driving up costs, slowing economies and hampering tourism. In countries where tourism is essential to the economy, such a chill in international transport would be devastating.


In April 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed aboard the Rwandan presidential jet (a Falcon 50 registered 9xR-NN) when a SAM hit it while on final approach to the international airport at Kigali, Rwanda, thus sparking Rwanda's Hutu-Tutsi civil war.

In September 1993, Abkhazian separatists of the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia shot down--or blew up on the runway-- three Tu-134 and Tu-154 airliners using shoulder-fired SAMs from boats out on the Black Sea. In 1986, a Sudan Airways jet was shot down by a SAM and, in the late 1970s, two Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) airliners were reportedly shot down by SA-7s. The Abkhazian attacks were notable for being the first to hit airliners with missiles launched from boats.


Libya has been forced to keep its airliners on the ground due to UN sanctions against commercial air travel imposed because of its involvement in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. The Libyan bombers are believed to have been working with Iran to avenge the Iranian Airbus accidentally shot down by the US Navy Aegis-equipped TICONDEROGA- class cruiser USS VINCENNES months earlier, in July 1988. What motive would Iran, or any other Islamic extremist, have for attacking an American airliner?

In June 1995, the United States levied an embargo against Iranian oil because of its [Iran's] sponsorship of international terrorism. These sanctions have been effective in squeezing the Iranian economy which currently suffers from inflation running at 50% and with a booming population that has few jobs and is growing increasingly restive. What better reason than to direct their attention toward an external enemy, in this case the 'Great Satan', the United States?

If the United States is content to levy sanctions and not engage in open combat that can be used to rally the populace, then provocations would be needed to draw the enemy into launching such attacks. Note how Saddam Hussein's standing increased after the September cruise missile attacks on his territory.

Iran has been stirring up trouble throughout the Gulf region for some time, trying to cause an incident either with the US directly, or indirectly by causing trouble with neighbors seen as allies of the United States, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Hezbollah factions have infiltrated all three. On November 13, 1995, an Iranian-backed organization known as Movement for Islamic Change claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Saudi National Guard headquarters complex in Riyadh, in which five Americans and two Indians were killed. This was number one of four promised attacks. Tensions continued to mount between the US and Iran.

On June 3, 1996, Iran vowed to resist the one-year-old embargo imposed by the US. Then, on June 9, Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini called for the Iranian military to boost its readiness and prepare for war. On June 13, the US House of Representatives cast a unanimous vote (415-0) in favor of imposing tighter sanctions on Iran. Libya was also added to the legislation. The intent of this bill is to cripple the ability of Iran and Libya to continue supporting international terrorism, but they had only begun.

On June 20-23, Tehran hosted an international terrorist conference, during which it was announced that there would be increased attacks against US interests. Two days later, on June 25, the truck-bombing of the military housing compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, claimed the lives of 19 US airmen and wounded hundreds of others. The Movement for Islamic Change, which had already claimed credit for the Riyadh bombing, now took credit for Dhahran. On July 16, the United States Senate passed its version of the sanctions against Iran and Libya. On the following day, July 17, the Movement for Islamic Change sent a chilling fax to the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat, warning: "The world will be astonished and amazed at the time and place chosen by the Mujahadeen. The Mujahadeen will deliver the harshest reply to the threats of the foolish American president. Everyone will be surprised by the volume, choice of place and timing of the Mujahadeen answer, and invaders must prepare to depart alive or dead for their time is morning and morning is near." That fax, and a warning by Israeli intelligence that Iran was likely to launch an attack against a US aircraft, were ignored. At 8:31:10 PM (0031:10 GMT) that evening, nobody could dismiss the horrendous explosion of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, New York. Attack number three had just been carried out.

On July 20-21, another international Hezbollah conference was held in Tehran. Some analysts believe this was an 'after-action' review of the TWA attack, possibly to assess the response to it. There was no response because, despite the early involvement of the FBI and other counter-intelligence agencies, nobody declared the downing an act of terror.

In fact, even as this is written [late September], the investigators of the FBI and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) still have not ruled out any of the three leading theories: a bomb, a missile attack or a mechanical failure. Even so, a day after the crash, an Iranian-backed, London-based news organization, Shanti RTV, claimed that the aircraft was shot down by a missile. Nobody else had even raised the issue of a missile. Other messages from Shanti soon cited anonymous French military sources who supposedly said the airliner fell victim to an American "friendly fire" missile. Since then, anonymous "experts" and "inside sources" have supposedly come out to support the "friendly fire" scenario.

This is a clumsy Iranian disinformation campaign that is easy to debunk with facts. One of these claims ham-fistedly cites the 1988 VINCENNES/Airbus incident and attempts to link TWA to an "Aegis" missile fired from an unnamed VINCENNES-class cruiser. There is no such thing as an "Aegis" missile and the nearest Aegis-type cruiser, the USS NORMANDY, was 213 nm (395km) to the south, off the coast of Virginia. The range of the SM-2MR Standard SAM, the only SAM [clarification added 3-5-00-R. Lewis] missile fired from all Aegis-type cruisers and destroyers in the US Navy is only 40nm (73 km). If one had been launched, the bright flash and heavy plume of smoke would have been seen for miles around, and could not be missed by other aircraft flying in the area. It simply did not happen. But Iran says a missile was fired.


TWA Flight 800 was a Boeing 747-131 (#N93119), the 153rd. Built in 1971, it was originally ordered by Eastern Airlines but, ironically, was scheduled to be sold to the Imperial Iranian Air Force but was never delivered. The 747 is an extremely rugged design, originally designated the CX-4 when it competed against Lockheed's CX-5 (C-5A Galaxy for the CX-HLS (Cargo,

Experimental-Heavy Logistics System) program. N93119 had logged 16.869 cycles (takeoffs/landings) and 93,303 flying hours. It was nearing the end of its service life. It had a history of corrosion and stress cracking near the joint of the forward fuselage/center wing box joint (where it separated in flight) and fuel leaks. All of these problems had been corrected and it met all airworthiness directives. None of these problems has been connected to the fatal crash.

On July 16, the day before it crashed, one of its crew members reported that it handled "flawlessly" with no "quirks" noted. Flight 800 was originally scheduled to depart JFK at 7:00 PM (2300 GMT), bound for Paris, France, but was held up by replacement of a faulty engine pressure gauge, the breakdown of a baggage conveyor vehicle and the need to remove a piece of unaccompanied luggage. That luggage was reloaded when its owner later arrived. The aircraft took off from JFK at 8:19 PM (0019 GMT). At 8:30:19 PM, the crew made its final transmission to air traffic control, acknowledging clearance to climb to 15,000 ft (4,572m). It never made it. Eleven seconds later, at 8:30:30 PM, all four channels of the cockpit voice recorder detected a split-second trace of a loud and still-unidentified noise, then fell silent. That mystery sound is said to be different from any other recorded in past crashes. By 8:31:10 PM, TWA Flight 800 was gone from the radar.

The day after the crash, radar tapes were said to have detected an unknown object travelling toward the aircraft at a high rate of speed. Upon "review" of the tapes in Washington, that "blip" was now judged to be a "radar anomaly" or a "glitch." Imagery from infra-red imaging Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites were screened for evidence of a missile launch but the rotation of the satellites is such that a small, supersonic missile could easily strike a target before the next "sweep" of the sensor. Besides, they are only designed to pick up the plume of a large missile or the afterburner of a jet engine. They did detect the fireball of Flight 800 but no missile. That supposedly ruled out a missile. It should not have. The sky at 8:31 PM on a July evening is a dusky grey. It would be bright enough to highlight the profile of a 747 while leaving the waters of the western Atlantic dark enough to hide the launch of a small missile with a very faint smoke trail. The FBI interviewed thousands of people on Long Island, aboard other aircraft at the time, and aircrews of the HC-130 transport and an HH-60G helicopter of the New York [Air National Guard's] ANG's 106th Rescue Wing operating in the area as part of a night-rescue exercise.

Several conspiracy theorists and Iranian disinformation artists have claimed that one of these aircraft fired a missile at Flight 800 but neither is equipped with any missiles and their only weapons are small, pintle-mounted machine-guns on the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters.

Interestingly, the FBI was focusing its investigation on boats some 40 ft (12m) in length that had either been chartered or reported as stolen. A boat of that size would provide a very stable platform for someone aiming a laser sight for a SAM launcher, even if the waters had not been dead calm and the winds light at only 4 kts. The FBI searched all boats returning to the marinas on Long Island for what was described by one reporter as "bomb residue." In fact, they were likely looking for residue from the booster motor of a SAM.

Several eyewitnesses on and off the water reported seeing streaks (note the plural) of light going up toward--and intersecting with--TWA 800 just before the first explosion. However, there was no description of an external explosion, as though a proximity fuze had detonated. There was a brief flash of white light, followed by a large flash of orange flame. Two massive fireballs erupted some 24 seconds (according to investigators) after the separation of the forward fuselage. The main section of the aircraft traveled another 2-1/2 miles (4 km) before it, too, plunged into the ocean.


The leading theory had been that the aircraft was downed by a bomb. But there has been very little trace of any explosive residue. Investigators found traces of PETN and RDX, both components of the plastic explosive Semtex used in many past bombings, including Pan Am 103. Investigators thought this might be a repeat of that bombing but there was no residue found in the forward luggage hold. Worse, the two chemical traces were widely separated, in the forward cabin and the rear cargo hold. On September 22, this riddle was explained when a records check revealed that a training exercise for bomb-sniffing dogs involved placing packages of explosives in those same two areas. No bomb.

But it had to be a bomb that detonated the center fuel tank (CFT) in the main wing box. It was then surmised that a device had been placed under a passenger seat in the wing area, with a shaped charge designed to penetrate the fuel tank below. But the 18-inch (45 cm) gap between the cabin floor and the CFT would negate a shaped charge, just as spaced armor does on a tank. No bomb.

The next theory was that a mechanical failure, such as an electrical fire in the empty cells of the CFT had somehow sparked a fuel explosion. After all, it had happened to a Boeing 737 in Manila in 1990; why not Flight 800? For one, this is six years of hindsight and modifications later, it is also a different aircraft and the locale is different. Fuel experts have pointed out that the 50-100 US gallons (189-378 liters) of kerosene-based Jet-A fuel pooled in the bottom of Flight 800 would need to reach or exceed a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or better, in order to detonate. The tarmac at Manila could easily reach that temperature. TWA 800, AT 13,700 ft (4,176 m) on July 17, above Long Island, New York, where the temperature was listed as 71 degrees, would not.

However, all evidence points to an explosion in the CFT, blowing a hole up through the cabin floor and punching two fist-sized holes in the back of two seats on the far right side of aisle number 23. Wounds to the feet of many victims show evidence of upward-moving shrapnel. The exit path for the fuel explosion was out through the upper right fuselage. The right wing and the fuselage area above it is described as severely charred. What, then, could cause the fuel tank to explode as it obviously did? The pattern of damage in the fuel tank sections recovered is not consistent with a "low-energy" fuel explosion but the detonation was not triggered by a bomb in the forward hold or in the passenger cabin. A surface-to-air missile would likely have detonated outside with a proximity fuze or immediately inside the aircraft's underbelly upon contact. No missile fragments. However, a missile could have done it by passing through the belly of the aircraft without exploding. 

In 1982, during the Falklands War, an Argentine AM.39 Exocet anti-ship missile struck the British destroyer HMS SHEFFIELD. It was a dud but the kinetic energy of the missile, flying at supersonic speed, was able to punch through the hull and slice into fuel lines, allowing the still-burning rocket motor to ignite a deadly and explosive fire. TWA 800 may have experienced an airborne version of this same fate.

The missile used was probably a Swedish-built Bofors RBS 70 (or uprated RBS 90). Many "experts" have lumped all man-portable missiles into the "heat-seeking" category of the Stinger, but the RBS 70 is laser-guided, allowing the gunner to target the widest area of the aircraft, the underside of its center wing box. The weapon [can be mounted on small vessels and] is gyro-stabilized, allowing it to be fired even when the water is not calm. It also comes with an optional infra-red sight for night targeting and has a virtually smokeless motor to help avoid detection. Its speed is supersonic (accounting for the sonic booms reported) and is very small (4 ft 3 inches {1.32 m} ) long, 4-1/5 inches (0.106m) in diameter, with a 12-1/2 inch (0.32m) wingspan. It would be extremely difficult--if not impossible--to find on imagery and would barely be visible on radar. It might appear as nothing more than a "glitch."

The RBS 70 has ranges of 15,000-18,000 ft (4,600-5,500 m) and a max altitude of 9,000-12,000 ft (2,750-3,700 m). These are all unclassified "book" ranges and may be less than the true maximums. Besides, if the missile was fired from below the aircraft, as has been suggested, the missile could easily have traded some of its exceptional range for greater altitude. The RBS 70 has a devastating shaped-charge of 2.2lb (1 kg) that is effective even against light armored vehicles and has dual fuzing with an active laser proximity fuze (which can be disabled for greater penetration) and a contact fuze. Even a dud could have detonated the fuel in the CFT with explosive force. On September 23, the investigators finally acknowledged that a SAM with a dud warhead could have been responsible. They were reportedly looking for evidence of an entry hole 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter. The diameter of the RBS 70 just happens to translate to 4-1/5 inches.

If such a missile, traveling at supersonic speed had penetrated deep into the CFT without exploding, it would still have focused tremendous energy in the confined space of the CFT. Any fuel vapors trapped within would have been extremely compressed and could have ignited on their own, even without contacting the sizzling-hot rocket motor. The resulting explosion would have been tremendous.

The damage to frames within the CFT reveals certain sections burned more severely than others. The middle of the rear spar's center section is severely burned but fractures found in pieces immediately to the right and left are not. This is said to indicate that the spar may have failed BEFORE THE FIRE IGNITED. And the aircraft keel, along the bottom, was broken in two

pieces. Debris from the air-conditioning unit behind and below the CFT, and the door and contents of the forward cargo bay, were ejected early in the event, landing in the first of three major debris fields.

Something blew them out of the bottom but the fire seems to have gone up through the cabin floor and out of the roof. That would seem to be the path of GREATEST, not least, resistance. Unless, that is, something had punched an escape path through. 

The only nation with heavy experience using the RBS 70 in combat used it to down 45 fixed- and rotary-winged aircraft in the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war. That country was Iran. Now, about that planned fourth attack.

Ronald W. Lewis

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