September 6, 1999

    Aviation Week and Space Technology - Aircraft Near
    TWA 800 Remains Unidentified

    James T. McKenna/Washington

    Federal investigators cannot account for a high-speed aircraft that
    was in a position to observe the explosion of TWA Flight 800 over
    the Atlantic Ocean more than three years ago.

    Data from the FAA's radar site at Islip, N.Y., showed an aircraft
    flying back and forth at speeds of about 350 kt. over the Atlantic
    south of Long Island for at least 10 min. before and 35 min. after
    TWA 800 crashed on the night of July 17, 1996.  All 230 on board
    were killed in the crash, which safety investigators believe was
    caused by an explosion of the Boeing 747-131's nearly empty
    center fuel tank. 

    Radar tracks indicate the aircraft was flying a northwest -
    southeast pattern.  The tracks are of primary radar returns or "skin
    paint" from the aircraft.  There does not appear to be any data on
    secondary radar returns to indicate its identity or altitude.

    The presence of the unidentified aircraft was highlighted Aug. 27
    by a group called The Flight 800 Independent Researchers
    Organization, which recently analyzed radar data that the NTSB
    said it released in April 1998.  The group is part of a loose
    coalition challenging the explanation that TWA 800 was downed
    by a fuel-tank explosion.  Coalition members offer a variety of
    conflicting theories for Flight 800's loss, including a missile attack
    by the U.S. Navy or terrorists.

    The information about the unidentified aircraft comes as an
    NTSB-led team is completing nearly a year's analysis of hundreds
    of FBI accounts of eyewitness statements about TWA 800's crash
    (AW&ST May 17, p.58).  The radar data puts the unidentified
    high-speed aircraft on a northwest heading at an undetermined
    altitude, with Flight 800 due north of it at about the 2 o'clock
    position and a distance of about 20 naut. Mi. at the moment the
    747 exploded.

    Officials working on the analysis of the eyewitness accounts said
    they knew nothing of the unidentified aircraft.

    NTSB officials said they have no idea what the aircraft was.  They
    said they initially examined radar data for evidence of a midair
    collision with TWA 800 and to identify civilian aircraft whose crews
    and passengers might have seen the 747.  For information on
    military and sensitive government aircraft, they said, they relied
    on the FBI, which conducted a simultaneous criminal probe of
    Flight 800's crash.

    Then-Assistant FBI Director James K. Kallstrom, who headed the
    criminal probe, called it one of the most comprehensive and
    exhaustive in the FBI's history.  As part of that probe, said
    Kallstrom (who has since retired), FBI agents accounted for the
    activities of all military aircraft in the area.  He suspended the
    probe, saying no evidence had been found that a criminal act led
    to TWA 800's crash (AW&ST Nov. 24, 1997, p. 49).

    But the FBI has never provided any information on the identity or
    activities of the high-speed aircraft depicted in the radar data.

    Since the FBI suspended its criminal probe, safety board officials
    said, the NTSB has queried military services and government
    agencies about activities that might explain the unidentified
    tracks.  The U.S. Navy has said none of its aircraft could account
    for the tracks, these officials said last week.  Other military
    services and the U.S. Coast Guard have yet to reply.

    NTSB officials said they have no plans to identify the high-speed
    aircraft and track down those on board.  They said any witness
    information the handful of crewmembers or passengers provided
    would do little to advance or refute the analysis of eyewitness
    accounts already in hand.

    "Underlying many of the questions seems to be a desire for the
    NTSB to redo the criminal investigation," a senior safety board
    official said.  "The NTSB is not a criminal investigation agency,
    and we have no intention of becoming one."