Dan's Papers - Long  Island

May 14, 1999 

A Meeting in DC 

Aviation Subcommittee Considers 
The Future Of The NTSB And Flight 800 Investigation 

The May 6 meeting of the House Subcommittee on Aviation in Washington, in which the tragedy of Flight 800 became a central issue, was inevitably a mixture of politics and emotion. 

"Ladies and gentlemen, based on the performance of the NTSB while investigating the unexplained loss of Flight 800, I no longer believe the NTSB is capable of fulfilling its aviation mission. Its abuse of power used to muzzle witnesses and interested parties proves that it has become so politicized that the board itself has become an aviation hazard." Part of a prepared statement from Commander William S. Donaldson III (U.S. Navy-Retired) which he read before the subcommittee. 

* * * 

The House Subcommittee on Aviation was meeting to consider the reauthorization--and budget requests--of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)--the government organization charged with investigating transportation accidents. It was an organization that a good deal of the public had never heard of, until the tragedy of TWA Flight 800. The investigation into just what brought down that plane and killed 230 people on the evening of July 17, 1996, has been and continues to be the biggest, most complex investigation the NTSB has ever mounted. 

The reauthorization hearing specifically asked for additional funds to cover the cost of the investigation of Flight 800. And, not surprisingly, there was spoken and written testimony presented to the Aviation Subcommittee critical of the NTSB, especially from two independent Flight 800 researchers: Commander William S. Donaldson, whose investigation has been in 
conjunction with the Associated Retired Aviation Professionals, and Thomas Stalcup, 
a Ph. D candidate in physics at Florida State University. 

In 1974, the NTSB became an independent agency; before that it had been under the Department of Transportation. The NTSB has investigated more than 100,000 aviation accidents and 10,000 surface transportation accidents. Overseen by a five-member board, the NTSB has no authority to issue transportation regulations and safety measures, but its findings often influence the FAA and Congress to act in this regard. 

* * * 

When you look into the numbers you begin to see just how much the investigation into Flight
800 has shaped the present day NTSB.  According to the Safety Board's own statements, it concludes its investigations in a period from 11-14 months, on the average. It normally closes the book on an aviation accident in 12 months. The Flight 800 investigation has been ongoing since July, 1996: two years and 10 months at this writing. The NTSB has just released a 
statement that it plans on closing the book on Flight 800 at the end of this year, which would bring the investigation time to three and one half years. 

Aviation is indeed the focus of the NTSB.  Out of its current staff of 402 people, 65 percent, or 259 employees, are involved in aviation investigations.  To understand how much the investigation of Flight 800 has dominated the NTSB since mid-'96 one only needs to look at the figures.

Contrast its 1999 budget of $53.5 million against the approximately $35 million spent 
thus far on that one investigation.  At the May 6 meeting the NTSB requested an increase in manpower and dollars, seeking an increase of $3.5 million over its 1999 budget. It also requested increases for the two subsequent years, which would substantially raise its budget to $76.4 million by 2002. 

Cynthia C. Lebo of the RAND corporation, which had been hired by the government to assess the NTSB's future needs, said that although the number of aviation accidents has decreased, present investigations have become more complex and the Safety Board clearly needed more funds and manpower. 

Of course, the more intriguing aspects of the meeting revolved about the continuing controversy into just what brought Flight 800 down into the Atlantic.  

From the latter part of 1997 into the summer of 1998, Congressman Jim Traficant, a member of the Aviation Subcommittee, forwarded a number of questions based on the research of Commander Donaldson to the FBI. In interviews with Donaldson through the spring of '98, the commander seemed confident that Traficant was going to use his political leverage to at least get the FBI to release information it had hitherto withheld from the public. 

Last July, just as Commander Donaldson and others--such as retired TWA pilot and flight engineer Howard Mann of Southold--were presenting in a 100 page plus report the results of their analysis of the crash and the subsequent investigation, Congressman Traficant came out with his conclusions that though he felt there had been things that should have been done otherwise, he agreed with the findings of the FBI in that there was no indication the plane had been downed by a criminal act or naval accident and that there was also no indication that a coverup or conspiracy of the government was surpressing the truth. 

In a recent phone interview, Donaldson said, "I had to laugh when Traficant says he reached this conclusion after his ten month investigation. His investigation consisted of what I had been feeding him. And if I had known then what I knew now about Traficant, I would have never gotten involved with him." 

Donaldson was referring to Traficant's alleged connections to mob activities in Ohio when 
Traficant had been a sheriff in Mahoning County. It has been alleged Traficant's 1980 campaign for sheriff was financed in part by two Mafia crime families. The wife of an organized crime figure, Charlie "The Crab" Carabbia , who had disappeared and been presumed murdered, turned over tapes to the FBI that contained recordings of conversations between her husband and Traficant, detailing illegal activities.  

In 1982, Traficant was indicted by the U.S. Attorney's Office on the charge of accepting bribes. Traficant was going to use a mob attorney to represent him, but when Traficant got the idea to divert public attention by holding a press conference in which he detailed and denounced mob activity in the county, the mob lawyer dropped him. The government offered Traficant a deal: be a government witness and go into the witness protection program. Traficant rejected the offer and went on trial, acting as his own attorney. 

At the trial the government played the tapes with Traficant and Charlie the Crab. A colleague in the sheriff's department testified that Traficant had asked him five times to inflict a minor wound on him so that he, Traficant could pretend he had gotten away from a mob assassination attempt.  

Traficant relied on a former colleague, a deputy, to testify as to his character, even though that individual had been fired for allegedly threatening to kill the mayor of Youngstown. At any rate, Traficant contended that what the tapes contained was nothing more or less than a portion of his own sting operation to infiltrate the mob. He assserted that he had returned the bribe money
that Charlie the Crab had given him. And Charlie the Crab was not around to testify otherwise. Traficant was acquitted.  

Traficant emerged from this arena of almost certain political doom as a man who had beat the establishment and now championed himself as someone who had also fought the mob. He was elected to Congress in 1984.  In 1987, Traficant was brought to civil court by the government--for failure to pay back taxes on the bribe money, which he had not declared. In court, Traficant claimed there was no tax on campaign contributions, though he had not listed this particular "contribution" on his campaign finance reports. Traficant was convicted and continued to serve in Congress. A former Chief of Staff of Traficant's, Charles O. Nesti, was indicted and eventually pled guilty to perjury and racketeering charges. 

"Traficant was plainly bothered that I had been called to testify," said Commander Donaldson after the May 6 subcommittee meeting. Since last summer the commander feels he and his research was used in a deceitful manner by the Congressman. 

In his statement to the subcommittee, Donaldson accused the NTSB of having a "bottom line [that] depends first on government bureaucracy's good will." The NTSB's and FBI's oversight of the investigation "invited political abuse by barring more competent independent  ivestigations." 

Referring to the recent conviction of James and Elizabeth Sanders for obtaining a portion of seat fabric from an authorized investigator in the hangar at Calverton where Flight 800 has been reconstructed, Donaldson said, "As a past nuclear war planner, it is disappointing that the same Justice Department that allowed our trillion dollar special weapons technology to be compromised by China because they refused to wire tap a spy before the '96 election, didn't blink when a federal judge found Jim Sanders suffered unconstitutional searches and seizures, nor blushed when Mrs. Sanders, shackled behind the back, was dragged through a media circus on the way to arraignment. She lost her airline career and her house.... This rabid behavior to get [Terrell] Stacey [the TWA investigator and Sanders' source] and Sanders, with the arrest the week before the NTSB's Public Hearing, was planned for maximum intimidation."  

Donaldson continued, "In fact, Mr. Hall [chairman of the NTSB] wanted Linda Kunz, another exceptional TWA crash investigator arrested after she pointed out NTSB employees were changing passenger seat location data to conform to NTSB's nonsense theory. Linda had the presence of mind to use two state police officers to photograph evidence. TWA attorneys sent Mr. Hall a letter citing these facts, but she was still forced out." 

* * *

Some further interesting facts about the debris field and the FBI's trawling operations from October 1996 to the end of April, 1997 have come to light. While the FBI said it was 
continuing to hunt for debris from the plane, an FBI trawling manual, prepared especially for this operation, specifically stated the Bureau was looking for parts of a Stinger missile. In fact, the FBI trawled in areas that were plainly outside the debris field, but marked the circumference of from where a Stinger or Stinger-type missile could have been fired. 

The trawling manual had a diagram and a photograph of a Stinger ejector motor and had "a secure line" through which an agent could phone in such a find, to keep the knowledge from "interested parties."  

It is indeed possible, according to interviews Commander Donaldson has conducted, that just before the FBI began its trawling operations, two crewman, in two separate incidents on two separate fishing boats, found what appeared to be the ejector motor of a man-fired missile and tossed it overboard.  

Commander Donaldson said "the Alpha Omega, a trawler out of New Bedford, from October 1-4, 1996 was at the edge of the crash zone. During one of those days one of the crewmen found what might have been the ejector motor can from a Stinger. It had two wires sticking out of it. He thought at first it was some kind of filter. He could not figure out what it was and threw it back in the water. When he was later shown a photo or diagram by the FBI he said that was what he had found." 

The FBI contracted five civilian boats to trawl for further evidence; on any given day there 
were four boats in the water. On each boat was an FBI agent. The FBI "Trawler Operations Orders" in the Trawler Operations Manual states: "Items of interest are in the attachments section. If one of these items is recovered, notify the command post immediately but be discreet while on the phone so as not to alert the crew."  

On April 30, 1997, the trawling operation was abruptly shut down, with no prior notice to the trawling vessels. There is, naturally, speculation that the abrupt shutdown was the result of the FBI finding what it was looking for. 

There have been 26 aircraft worldwide shot down by MANPADs--Man Portable Defense Systems; Flight 800 may have been the 27th. To prove that foreign MANPADs have been previously smuggled into the country, Donaldson recalled the curious case of the French-made Mistral, a Stinger-type missile that was found along a country road in Westminster, Maryland in October, 1994. The owner of a nearby convenience store had noticed it alongside the road; the Mistral was leaning on its side.  "Somebody brought it here," said Donaldson. "Normally a Mistral would not be in this country except for some type of joint military test. Westminister, Maryland is an area that is constantly overflown by airlines from the major airports on the east coast. It's a great place to try to shoot down a plane. But it's strange the way the missile was just left at the edge of a road--in plain sight. As if someone wanted it to be found. This is just my speculation, but it's as if someone was giving our government a warning that they could take down a plane of ours at any time." 

Thomas Stalcup, a physics research assistant at Florida State University, had a good deal to say --and speculate on--in regards to the Aviation Subcommittee hearing.  "Who sent the hearing notice to the commander's address? Even the commander doesn't know. It was just the hearing notice, stuffed into a manila envelope....  "As the opening statement from Traficant 
continued, I knew that the hearing had multiple purposes... for Traficant to pay his dues with those whom he may have made a deal. He... praised the FBI and CIA in dramatic fashion." Stalcup refers to the "highly coincidental appropriations set for his district" as possible reason for Traficant's apparent flipflop last year in regards to Donaldson's investigation. 

At the hearing, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said, "It was a fuel-air explosion." Stalcup, who was not allowed to speak at the hearing but posted a website synopis, counters with: "Has your agency ever, in the nearly three years since the tragedy, been able to reproduce a similar fuel-air explosion, using only Jet A fumes?"  

Traficant said, "Every piece of wreckage was thoroughly analyzed... I want the American people to know how meticulously and thoroughly every piece of evidence was examined." But, as Stalcup pointed out, a fragment of the center fuel tank, CW-504, showed a residue of  nitrates; yet, this is not included in the NTSB report. 

Stalcup, who is the chair of Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization, contends that he has been "blacklisted by ranking members within the NTSB at gaining information from, until recently helpful NTSB employees. Why did an FAA FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) representative inform me that the NTSB will not allow the release of any radar data?" 

Although Stalcup expressed frustration with the hearings, he concluded his website synopsis of the hearing with: "I think we are a step closer to Congressional hearings on TWA Flight 800." 

In Commander Donaldson's testimony, he said, "Every time NTSB officials have spoken publicly about TWA 800, they have lied or shaded the truth. I will close with physical evidence of one of the bigger deceptions. At the same time Mr. Hall's letter to the editor was published in the Wall Street Journal in April 1997 titled "It Wasn't a Missile," he was paying for the  covert recovery of the very missile parts he denied existed." 

­Jerry Cimisi

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