What Happened to TWA 800?

July 20, 2000

By: Joe Brancatelli 

A day after the downing of TWA 800 four years ago this week, an executive of an international airline invited me to lunch. From the moment I slid into the banquette at his stodgy private club, I knew this was going to be a different kind of lunch altogether.

"What's your take on TWA 800?" he asked before I could settle in. The question stunned me. Over all the years I had known this guy, he never speculated on matters of safety or security, and once said sourly, "Never say 'crash' to an airline guy" when I jokingly asked about the "crash" of his company’s stock price.

"Well," I stammered. "There's no 'good' news here. If it was a missile, there's gonna be hell to pay. If it was terrorism, the recriminations and the security measures will be positively fascist. And if it was mechanical, it was catastrophic failure like we've never seen before."

"It was a missile," the executive said evenly. "Friendly fire. We kept telling the military this would happen one day. And the bastards just kept doing it and doing it. And now hundreds of people are dead."

I didn't say anything. We didn't even have water on the table yet and here was this wild accusation from an airline guy I considered Mr. Button Down. I took a quick mental inventory of what I knew about him: he was former military, his son was a pilot, and we'd had a brief conversation a couple of months back, when one of his airline's planes was chased by two military fighter jets across the North Pacific.

"What are we talking about?" I finally managed to mumble.

Grimly, the executive laid out his theory: TWA 800 took off, was picked up on radar by U.S. fighters, and then made the "target" by a giddy pilot. As so often happens, this military pilot was playing an ad hoc war game: lock onto a commercial jet, make believe it is an enemy plane, then blow it out of the sky. Only this time, the executive insisted, something went terribly wrong and the game turned real.

"For years we've been complaining about the military locking onto commercial jets and using them for target practice," the executive said. "We go down to the Pentagon and bitch and they promise it'll never happen again. Then, when it does happen again, they say, 'no harm, no foul.' I think they just fouled."

Over the course of this very peculiar lunch, the airline executive also laid out several eerie scenarios: watch the government attempt to discredit, then ignore, then awkwardly explain away the eyewitness accounts that support the "missile theory." Watch the President make an unprecedented gesture to the families of the TWA 800 victims. Watch how the cockpit recorders will reveal no signs of crew comments indicating mechanical failure. Watch how a mechanical problem will be vaguely blamed, yet no 747s will be grounded. Most of all, he said, "Watch the players."

"What do you mean, 'Watch the players?'"

As if quizzing a befuddled child, he said, "Who has the statutory authority to investigate air crashes in this country?"

"Well," I said, "The National Transportation Safety Board, except if…"

"Except if there is criminal activity involved and then the FBI is in the mix."

"So, what's the point?"

"Like I said, watch the players. Forget about what they say and what they do. Eventually, they will tell you its not a bomb, it not a missile, it’s a mechanical. But watch how the FBI doesn't go away. If it is a mechanical, the FBI has no legal authority to be anywhere near the NTSB. But watch how the FBI will never go away."

I left that luncheon scared. I wondered how a right-thinking, by-the-book airline executive became a conspiracy freak. Except…

Except how come no airline executive I know thinks this luncheon conversation was strange? How come, whenever I’ve asked about TWA 800 over the intervening four years, they obsess about the number of times their aircraft have been "targets" of military jets playing war games?

Except how come everything that airline executive predicted during that lunch has come true?

The government has gone to extraordinary - sometimes laughable - lengths to discredit, ignore, then explain away eyewitness accounts. President Clinton and the First Lady did take an unprecedented step. They flew to Kennedy Airport to console the families of the TWA 800 victims. They didn’t even do that last year when American Flight 1420 crashed in the President’s home state of Arkansas. How come the cockpit recorders didn't yield any clue of a mechanical failure? How come not a single 747 was ever grounded if there really is a catastrophic problem with their center fuel tanks? 

And, how come, if you watched the players, the FBI did remain intimately involved with the investigation? The now-retired deputy FBI director, James Kallstrom, shadowed the NTSB from the moment TWA 800 went down. He told anyone who’d listen, including Congress, that there was no criminal activity. Yet he and the FBI hung around for 16 months, bullying, badgering, ridiculing and covering up. Kallstrom even corrupted the NTSB and, by the NTSB's own admission, forced the official hearings to forgo testimony from eyewitnesses. 

After years of misinformation and odd obfuscation, the NTSB says it may finally release its tainted report on TWA 800 sometime next month. But who’s going to believe it now? Whatever NTSB says, the report will forever be the aviation equivalent of the Warren Commission. It will raise more questions than it will answer. It will do nothing to quell the rumor mongering, the conspiracy theorists, the nut jobs, the honestly tormented and the truly obsessed. That is what always happens when you do a hatchet job on an investigation. 

I don’t know what happened to TWA 800. I’m not qualified to say. But I’m not stupid: I know that something is very wrong here. Very wrong.

E-mail Joe at JBrancatelli@aol.com or call him toll-free at 877-510-1746 with your tips,  ideas, suggestions and gripes.  The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and are not necessarily those of biztravel.com. Comments and suggestions to editor@biztravel.com 

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