Missiles Test Crash Theory
By Don Phillips
Investigators seeking answers to the 1996 explosion and crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 fired Stinger missiles into the air from a Florida beach last month to determine whether it is possible that streaks of light seen by several witnesses could have been missiles.
While investigators said they will need several weeks to analyze data from the unannounced tests, sources familiar with the tests said initial observations have turned up nothing to cast doubt on the National Transportation Safety Board's preliminary determination that no missile hit the plane. The board determined shortly after the crash that the plane's nearly empty center fuel tank exploded, but they so far have not determined a source of ignition.
The Boeing 747 exploded and fell into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 230 people on board, on July 17, 1996, 12 minutes into a flight from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport to Paris. Numerous witnesses saw streaks of light in the sky. Investigators have stressed that they still have no physical evidence of a missile or a bomb.
Board investigators, however, decided that their probe could not be considered complete unless they made a detailed scientific comparison between what the witnesses said in their first interviews with FBI agents and the sights and sounds a missile would make in exactly the same atmospheric conditions and lighting as that evening on the Long Island coast.
"This was a dotting of the i's and a crossing of the t's," a source said.. "Some concluded it would be very nice to know for certain what you would see. What would a missile look like?"
In probing the air disaster, neither FBI nor board investigators could find explosive residue or any of the telltale markings and metallurgical changes that indicate presence of a high-energy blast.
The FBI, which long ago announced that it was no longer looking for a smoking bomb or missile, chose not to participate in the latest tests.
"A missile did not strike or explode inside this plane," said an investigative source. "There is no evidence, and there is no possibility it could have happened and not left evidence."
The answer to how closely the tests and the witness reports mesh is still several weeks away and will be part of the evidence presented at the board's final hearing in late August, when it is to determine a "probable cause" for the crash. In the meantime, the raw data from the tests are being closely held.
Sources said, however, that the tests were conducted with "no preconception of what would happen."
Computerized simulations by the board and the Central Intelligence Agency in December 1997 indicated the streaks could be the flaming fuel tank.
The light appeared to be rising because the front of the airplane had broken away and the rest of the aircraft, including the wings, shot upward because it was no longer weighed down by the forward part of the fuselage.
A cottage industry has grown up around the theory that the plane was hit by a missile.
Numerous well-known former military and government officials, including former admiral Thomas Moorer and former presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger, have perpetuated the missile theory.
They have pointed out that there were numerous boats in the area from which a missile could have been fired.
The tests were conducted in late April at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, Fla.
That time of year was chosen because the lighting conditions on the Gulf Coast along the Florida Panhandle would be just about the same as the conditions off Long Island in mid-July.
Meteorologists watched atmospheric conditions to determine when they were just right. Visibility was almost unlimited the evening of the crash, but a misty haze hung in the air. Investigators wanted conditions to be so precise, in fact, that meteorologists called off the tests on several nights.
Video cameras recorded the missile firings at various locations around the base, roughly at the same distances as the witnesses on Long Island. Observers were interviewed after each launch.
The Stingers, which are portable and can be shoulder-fired, were placed in special launchers instead. Sources would not say how many missiles were fired by military personnel during the tests.
Although the area around Eglin is populated, and there is no doubt that hundreds of civilians off base saw the tests, no one would think anything out of the ordinary was happening because the base routinely fires Stingers in tests.
Stingers have a specific shelf life after which they cannot be used in combat but are still safe for tests.
In fact, the sources said the Air Force often invites members of the community in for open houses to watch missile firings "and have them sit down and drink a beer," a source said.
"We thought we'd have to go to a lot of trouble to set this up," a source said. "They do these things all the time. It was easy to do it."
One source said it was extremely unfortunate that word of the tests began leaking out because it is possible that the data "will in the end conclude it [a missile] is extremely unlikely" and investigators did not want people to conclude that the tests were prompted by any new information.
These tests will be seen at the August hearings along with hundreds of highly detailed tests and studies of almost every possibility and almost every system on the plane.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company