Associated Retired Aviation Professionals


                                            by Tom Shoemaker and Richard Hirsch

                                                     August 25, 2000

1: Case Closed?

More than a few Americans believe a missile may have hit TWA Flight 800. This belief is reflected by a journalist’s statement that “The missile scenario won’t go away for a simple reason: it makes sense.” We agree. This was true four years ago and remains true today. It makes sense in terms of much eyewitness information....information which officials charged with looking into the disaster attempted to bury and sometimes misrepresent. It makes sense in terms of the odd behavior of military officials following the disaster. It makes sense in terms of the tests and analyses available to the official investigators which they pointedly preferred not to pursue. It makes sense in terms of the way wreckage was recovered and handled by officials. 

It also makes sense in the specific way officials have attempted to single out and silence, punish, intimidate, and ridicule some critics of the official investigation as if these individuals, in sincere use of their First Amendment rights, posed a credible threat to the great Ship of State. In taking that approach it seems that the NTSB and other government agencies have gone out of their way to promote public distrust during the TWA Flight 800 investigation. When we question our government agencies about their actions we are following the advice of the founding fathers of this country. They understood from first-hand experience the dangers of a government that refuses to be checked by the electorate. The NTSB is a servant of the people, not the other way around. It hasn’t always appeared that way in the record of the TWA Flight 800 investigation.

At this time we cannot prove that one or more missiles struck TWA Flight 800. We have no obligation to supply such a proof at this time. Our obligation is to chronicle the considerable collection of TWA Flight 800-related facts which may point towards missile involvement that have not been adequately addressed by officials over the past 49 months . We do not want to close our own study without a more careful examination of that possibility. At this time such a scenario
provides an explanation of the disaster competitive with the officially promulgated un-specified, un-located, un-sourced, un-precedented, un-replicable, un-documented, suspected (not proved) “mystery spark” scenario.

We think it is as fair for us to discuss a possible missile shoot-down of TWA Flight 800 as it is for the NTSB to discuss the possible explosion of the Center Wing tank as being the cause of the crash. Our “proof” is as good as the “proof” being given by the NTSB at its public meetings. The truth of the matter is the NTSB has working theories for the reasons for the disaster. Working theories are not proofs: they are nothing more than professional speculations. In the absence of a proven causation scenario we each must choose the explanation that is most believable to ourselves, insisting that the final belief rests firmly on factual evidence, fact-based inferences, and critical and careful thought rather than free-floating speculations.

2: Some of What We Don’t Know About TWA Flight 800

In June, 1999 the following list of investigation topics that needed to be cleared up before the official inquiry into the disaster would achieve credibility was created by an independent investigator. Fourteen months later it stands as one of the mileposts along the discussion path of what we do and do not know about the disaster after four years of official attention to the details. The topics and comments from 1999 appear in each paragraph prefaced by a number. Commentary from August, 2000 follows below each numbered section in a separate paragraph.

1. The NTSB's CWT scenario is unproven. The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) insists an explosion of the large, almost empty CWT (Center Wing Tank) destroyed the aircraft. But the NTSB cannot explain what initiated it. The NTSB also cannot get a CWT to explode without resorting to different fuels and contrived ignition schemes.

More evidence is becoming available now which indicates certain fuels may, in fact, exhibit explosive characteristics over a wider range of conditions than previously believed. The weight of evidence accumulated over the past four years, however, counsels that aircraft fuel systems are incredibly safe and reliable rather than incredibly quirky, volatile, unstable, and dangerous. The CWT scenario as a will-o‘-the-wisp causation hypothesis remains weak and unproven...and now, even officials seem to be resorting to causation descriptions turning upon the word “mystery” if TWA Flight 800 and the Shroud of Turin share some arcane lineage. 

2. All possible explosives tests have not been carried out by officials. Nitrates, which are ingredients of many explosives, were found splattered on a piece of wreckage located close to the point where the aircraft exploded. But the NTSB has not performed the tests needed to further
identify the possible origins of those deposits.

This is still true. Incredibly, tests on residues found within TWA Flight 800 wreckage that are well known components of explosives including military munitions and projectile fuels were not carried out as a consequence of official decision-making. It is reasonable to expect that those tests should have been made and the results shared with the public...but somehow those concerns were trumped by concealed official motives which remain unclear. 

3. The CVR may contain additional information. The CVR (Cockpit Voice Recorder) within the aircraft recorded a loud noise just before it stopped recording at the moment catastrophic structural damage was taking place aboard the aircraft. To this day the NTSB cannot identify that
sound .

This is still true. There is technical analysis work that could be done on the CVR recording that officials have chosen not to do, thereby constricting rather than expanding possible sources of clues about the disaster.

4. Official tests of the "red residues" have not been definitive. To counter the suggestion by a journalist that certain red residues found on interior wreckage of the aircraft were residues of missile exhaust, officials have stated those residues were traces of a glue routinely used to attach fabric to seats. These officials have never fully used their test facilities to compare the glue's chemical composition with that of the found residues.

This remains true. A fair-minded person would settle for a “test-off” of the fabric in question by a prestigious and completely independent laboratory to end the debate on this topic between officials and critics. Such a fair analysis has never taken place. Also, it is reasonable to believe that if red residues were deposited upon the interior of the aircraft by an object passing through it, then those residues should have been found on the bodies or clothes of the victims. Have they?

5. The official "canine dog exercise" as a source of explosives residues is unconvincing. Explosives residues found in the interior wreckage of the aircraft have been explained away by officials as having been inadvertently deposited during a canine explosives test the month before the disaster. Information concerning that canine exercise strongly suggests it was performed aboard a different aircraft altogether.

Still true. Explosives residues were found in multiple places on the wreckage of TWA Flight 800. To claim an innocent genesis for the presence of such residues, officials pieced together and circulated the story of a police canine explosives detection exercise taking place aboard the doomed aircraft weeks before the disaster. Proof of that exercise aboard that particular aircraft remains incomplete...and if the last elements of that arguable scenario collapse, there is no benign explanation for bits of explosives being found within TWA Flight 800. Such a possible analytical vacuum invites consideration of non-innocent explosive residue deposition on the aircraft, leaving a gaping hole in official assurances of only “good” explosives residues on recovered wreckage. 

6. The radar tapes have never been shown and definitively explained. A radar tape of the accident showing the destruction of the aircraft was leaked to the public. Immediately after the accident a FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) technician stated the tape showed a possible intercept of the aircraft by a missile. Such an interpretation was later dismissed by officials. Persons possessing the tape were threatened with federal prosecution, and the tape remains under official wraps to this day.

And that was the saga of only one radar tape. Official explanations of what that tape showed and didn’t show were so varied it was never clear what the simple truth of the data was. There were many more radar sites having a view of the disaster. Their original data has not been freely shared with the public by officials.  Radar data records supplied by officials have been selectively cropped, resulting in incomplete views of the complete crash environment. 

7. Eyewitness information has been suppressed. Eyewitnesses to the tragedy were not interviewed in a timely manner. Some eyewitnesses waited months to be interviewed by officials. Direct eyewitness testimony was excluded from the NTSB's December, 1997 TWA Flight 800 Baltimore Hearings. In most disasters eyewitnesses play a very positive, major role: in this case eyewitness information has been hidden by officials.

Officials claimed CIA and NTSB animations were based on eyewitness input: the problem lies in finding any eyewitness who believes his or her inputs were followed by those animations! For a considerable time, the NTSB did no eyewitness interviews. Then they were allowed to eyeball FBI eyewitness reports, but not allowed to have copies of them. More recently (just this year) eyewitness data has been released to the public. The mantra of the official distrust of the eyewitnesses has appeared in three stages: (1) “some eyewitnesses had a poor partial view of the incident” (2) “some eyewitnesses read far too much into the fireball they saw in the sky or the sounds they heard” and (3) “eyewitnesses who had highly specific things to say about pre-fireball events were simply mistaken”. These criticisms have been combined by officials to suggest that the sum total of eyewitness information lacks investigative utility. And yet, there many of those eyewitnesses remain, still thinking they saw an ascending object approach the part of the sky TWA Flight 800 occupied as it was destroyed. What if they are correct?

8. Unknown vessels were close to the victim aircraft when it exploded. After more than four years following the disaster, officials refuse to identify some of the radar tracks passing quite near the victim aircraft. At least one of those unidentified tracks was virtually underneath the aircraft when it exploded. Immediately after the explosion it fled the scene instead of arriving to lend rescue and recovery assistance. Officials continue to refuse to identify that vessel.

The identity of that vessel is still not publicly known. This is a strange investigation initiative. What reason is a logical one to keep the identity of this vessel concealed for more than four years? What mandate for concealment in 1996 would remain valid in 2000? What if the identity of that vessel was never determined then and remains officially unknown today? How is a case of this magnitude closed with unidentified witnesses (or worse) existing who are known to have been in close proximity to the disaster? Concealing information like this does not make sense. 

9. The Flight Data Recorder's information needs further interpretation. When private researchers noted abnormalities in the FDR (Flight Data Recorder) records of the victim aircraft, the NTSB simply drew a line through the suspect data and stated that data belonged to another flight. Additional FDR abnormalities remain unexplained almost three years after the crash.

Still true. The FDR data remains a question mark to this day. Since the paragraph above was written , there have been additional official attempts to explain the FDR. None of those have succeeded in clearing up vital questions posed by the public concerning the substance and structure of the FDR’s data. 

10. The armed services have not been sufficiently frank. Despite initial official denials that military exercises had been scheduled for the ocean areas just to the south of victim aircraft's flight path, it was later determined that military exercises had indeed been carried out not far from the disaster scene. The numbers and types of military ships south of Long Island at the time of the accident were also initially minimized and misrepresented by officials.

These confusions persist. A general rule of thumb is that persons trying to conceal their actions can produce a hundred stories to convey the image of innocence. The truly innocent usually have only one story to tell: the simple truth. The armed services distributed many stories about what they were and what they were not doing on July 17, 1996. All the stories cannot be true. 

3: Maintaining an Independent Investigation’s Critical Focus

Much information about TWA Flight 800 that officially never would have seen the light of day has been made available by various independent investigation groups and individuals. These persons will certainly make more facts known in the months and years ahead.

They have survived the efforts to intimidate them. The most obvious attempt to smear, inhibit, and silence these persons was to accuse them of participating in some sort of conspiracy: either in their allegiance to an anti-government-at-any-cost agenda or in the alleged conspiratorial thrust of their thinking. Those accusations are false. In making such a charge, the words have served only as an indicator of the accuser’s clumsy unfamiliarity with the independent investigator community or the accuser’s desperation in trying to smear those who dissent.

Such words have had some effect on the world views of that segment of the population which knows very little about the investigation, desperately needs to believe that the government is infallible, or is generally uncomfortable with people who think independently. However, the impact of the “conspiracy” smear has decreased greatly over the span of the last four years, and today remains far less toxic than at any other time in the TWA Flight 800 story. It is a spent bullet.

While showing good coping skills in facing down and outlasting the hackneyed “conspiracy” accusations, there remains one area in which the independent investigators exhibit a real and continuing vulnerability. That danger lurks when the theories and speculations of the investigators run far forward from the security of supporting factual materials, bask in the temporary sunshine of however-improbable possibility, and then wither in front of a dismayed and confused public and media that want hard facts instead of speculation....groups abandoned to wonder alone how all that smoke and noise could leave so little useful product. Observers burned time and again in this manner quickly develop a general disinterest in the topic...and become more than willing to ignore much good research in order to escape exposure to the ballyhooed non-facts.

Some of the independent researchers have concluded that three different missiles struck TWA Flight 800...some will tell you Middle Easterners fired those missiles...some will say those Middle Easterners entered the U.S. with their missiles from Canada...and that the missiles themselves are known to have come from a specific nation in the Eastern Hemisphere...some will say the Navy fired missiles...some will try to name the ship from which the missiles were fired.....some will name the specific type of missile for you...some will delineate for you what data radar tapes they have never seen contain ...some will tell you the government knows terrorists destroyed TWA Flight 800 and has chosen to protect the terrorist murderers for domestic political reasons ... but even when argued long and passionately such ideas remain speculations, not facts.

These speculations presented as facts are hurting the serious independent investigation work. The constant release of a myriad of unproven charges does more to muck up the investigation than to help it. The speculators sometimes appear to believe that their personal conviction is really all the proof they need to make their case.

For all the energy invested in those speculations, their proponents would be hard pressed to prove such a case as a fact in a court of law or even in a decent high school debate tournament. At times there appears to be an overwhelming urge to attempt to bridge the chasm between speculation and proof with a leap lightened by the abandonment of weighty but necessary facts. This is a prescription for disaster that can be avoided.

Plain talk among the researchers should be able to separate beliefs from facts. There is no disgrace in an investigator admitting his hypothesis is a few facts short of a proof. Traditionally that admission has spurred researchers to refine their techniques and redouble their efforts . In many cases the needed facts have appeared after painstaking and brutally honest self and peer examinations of what is thought to be known and what is actually known. Usually great discoveries
have not been achieved by researchers substituting a belief or a suspicion for a fact. The utility of the belief or suspicion lies in its demand for satisfaction by factual information and not in its warped potential to masquerade as a fact.

It will be interesting to watch these independent efforts in the future to see which researchers are able to present additional fact-based alternatives to the official story. The power to succeed at this is within the grasp of the independent researchers more now than at any time in the past four years, but failure to go beyond belief and hypothesis will surely scuttle the independent investigation forever. 

4: The Future

We have heard from officials that they do not have all of the answers about the TWA Flight 800 tragedy. In various areas of investigation they have faced the same “bottom line” as interested members of the public: no available incontrovertible proof of exactly what happened to the aircraft in its last minute to initiate its destruction. 

However, officials ended their work on August 24, 2000 with the contention they have done everything imaginable to uncover answers about the disaster....that “no stone has been left unturned” in the process of their investigation. On that point, more than a few members of the public disagree. They continue to look for clarification of blurred investigation issues and believe they have found evidentiary “stones” the officials have neglected or misjudged. For those persons, the investigation did not end this week. For them, NTSB activities in 2000 were not even “The beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning.“ 

For them the answer to the question “What do we know about the TWA Flight 800 disaster?” appears to be “A great deal, but not enough yet to let the matter rest.” To create any constructive work product these critics must impose the same standards upon themselves that they have demanded of the NTSB: reliable conclusions backed up by facts. 

The test of a serious investigator, whether he or she is a NTSB investigator or an independent investigator is scrupulous attention to the truth. In a way, the independent investigator actually has a higher burden to meet because he or she is rarely “in the business”. We have touched base with many of the independent investigators and can report to the American People that there are independent investigators involved in the TWA Flight 800 investigation whose professional credentials are the match for those employed in the official investigation.

Time is on the side of these critics if their goal remains uncovering more of the truth about TWA Flight 800, no matter what that final truth may turn out to be. Even a cursory examination of the unanswered questions about this matter reveals that many of the remaining issues were not somehow fated to be forever silent and inscrutable. That reality and a hope that additional research might insure that such a tragedy can be prevented from ever happening again will fuel private efforts to learn more about TWA Flight 800 for years to come. 

Richard Hirsch is a long-time TWA Flight 800 independent investigator. He has published original research on eyewitness analysis, radar data, the Boeing 747-100 center wing tank, the Flight Data Recorder, and other topics. He maintains a research website:

Tom Shoemaker established the “TWA 800 Case Files” website in January, 1997. The website includes research materials and an archive of newsletters on the TWA Flight 800 disaster which are published periodically. It is located:

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