|September 6, 1999
and Space Technology - Aircraft Near
TWA 800 Remains
James T. McKenna/Washington
Federal investigators cannot account for a high-speed
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
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
caused by an explosion of the Boeing 747-131's nearly
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
The presence of the unidentified aircraft was highlighted
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
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
NTSB-led team is completing nearly a year's analysis
of FBI accounts of eyewitness statements about TWA
(AW&ST May 17, p.58). The radar data puts
high-speed aircraft on a northwest heading at an
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
Officials working on the analysis of the eyewitness
they knew nothing of the unidentified aircraft.
NTSB officials said they have no idea what the aircraft
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
military and sensitive government aircraft, they
said, they relied
on the FBI, which conducted a simultaneous criminal
Flight 800's crash.
Then-Assistant FBI Director James K. Kallstrom, who
criminal probe, called it one of the most comprehensive
exhaustive in the FBI's history. As part of
that probe, said
Kallstrom (who has since retired), FBI agents accounted
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.
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
said, the NTSB has queried military services and
agencies about activities that might explain the
tracks. The U.S. Navy has said none of its
aircraft could account
for the tracks, these officials said last week.
services and the U.S. Coast Guard have yet to reply.
NTSB officials said they have no plans to identify
aircraft and track down those on board. They
said any witness
information the handful of crewmembers or passengers
would do little to advance or refute the analysis
accounts already in hand.
"Underlying many of the questions seems to be a desire
NTSB to redo the criminal investigation," a senior
official said. "The NTSB is not a criminal
and we have no intention of becoming one."