Flight 800 theorists stick
to their guns
Sept 19, 1999
Crash: Amateur investigators dismiss the government's
that a vapor explosion brought down a TWA Boeing 747.
By Tom Bowman
Sometime early next year will come the last official word on what
caused the crash of TWA Flight 800, which set out for Paris on July
17, 1996, and exploded in a fireball over Long Island Sound,
sending all 230 passengers and crew members to a watery grave.
The National Transportation Safety Board is expected by March to
issue its final report on the crash of the Boeing 747 and will point to
an electrical failure, which ignited vapors in a center wing tank, said
top NTSB official, who requested anonymity.
The tank's explosion ripped off the front of the plane, which climbed
several thousand feet before it began its perilous descent into the
water, said investigators.
But retired Navy Cmdr. William S. Donaldson III, 55, a combat
pilot during the Vietnam War who investigated a dozen Navy crashes
during his 25-year career, points to another cause: a shoulder-fired
missile from a terrorist aboard a speedboat some three miles away.
Thomas Stalcup, 29, a doctoral candidate in physics at Florida State
University, has another explanation, backed by dozens of other
amateur TWA 800 sleuths: A military "special operations" exercise
supported by a "fleet" of fast-moving ships off Long Island Sound
accidentally fired a missile that brought down the plane.
Neither man has concrete evidence to support his theory. They blend
portions of evidence, from radar blips to bomb residue. They argue
that the government's conclusions of a vapor explosion and a rising,
crippled aircraft are impossible. And from eyewitness accounts, they
conclude, on their Web sites and in media conferences, that a missile
can be the only reason for the crash.
When they ponder the government's explanation, they see
incompetence and cover-up. They dismiss an investigation that has
cost $40 million and included the FBI, the NTSB, the CIA, the
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire-arms and scientists from
government labs and private universities.
"They're both wrong," said former FBI assistant director James
Kallstrom, who led the criminal investigation into the TWA 800
crash, referring to Donaldson and Stalcup.
"They have seen none of the evidence," said an exasperated
Kallstrom, who has left the agency for private industry. " … There's
no forensic evidence of anything hitting the plane."
Kallstrom said investigators first thought a bomb or missile destroyed
the aircraft, given eyewitness accounts of a streak of light across the
sky. " … We took the eyewitness accounts very seriously," he said.
"I put 500 agents on it as if it were a missile."
But tests of the plane's wreckage, more than 95 percent of which
was recovered, pointed not to a bomb or missile but to an internal
explosion in the huge center wing fuel tank.
A December 1997 report by the Naval Air Warfare Center
Weapons Division in China Lakes, Calif., said there was "no
evidence" of a missile strike, noting that the wreckage bore none of
the telltale signs, such as high-velocity penetration or soot residue.
What the witnesses saw, investigators realized, was not a missile
rising to meet the plane but the plane breaking up in the sky.
But Donaldson and Stalcup say many of the more than 100
witnesses, including veterans who had experience with missiles and
gunnery fire, clearly saw a rising streak of light that would indicate
some type of ordnance.
Donaldson, who left the Navy in 1991 and owns a farm in St. Mary's
County, has been obsessed with the crash since April 1997, when he
read a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by NTSB Chairman James
Hall that discounted the missile theory and pointed to a spontaneous
explosion in the center wing tank. "I knew the fuel couldn't do what
he said it did," said Donaldson.
Since then, Donaldson has created the Associated Retired Aviation
Professionals to look into the crash, peppered government officials
with questions, prodded lawmakers to mount a new investigation and
crafted his own fuel experiments.
It's impossible for the plane's fuel to create an explosion, Donaldson
says, noting that it is difficult to light and would have quickly burned
out in the tank because of a lack of oxygen. In millions of takeoffs, he
said, the accident described by investigators has never happened.
"He's simply wrong," said a top NTSB official who asked that he not
be named. The official said a similar explosion took place aboard a
Philippine Air Lines Boeing 737 and killed eight people on May 11,
1990, at Manila International Airport.
Despite investigators' findings that a faulty switch and damaged wires
probably ignited the fuel-air mixture in the tank, Donaldson sticks to
his theory that a terrorist, not a fuel tank mishap, brought down the
One of the eyewitnesses saw an arcing light resembling a military
"tracer round" at almost precisely the location of a speedboat
captured by airport radar at about three miles from the crash scene
and traveling at 30 knots. Donaldson says this corresponds with a
Cigarette boat that two fishermen saw leaving Long Island's
Moriches Inlet about 20 minutes before the plane exploded. The
fishermen noticed the boat's operator idle, peer around and then race
out into Long Island Sound. They reported what they saw to the
FBI, Donaldson says.
The terrorist-attack theorists point out that President Clinton signed
into law tough sanctions against Iran months before the TWA 800
explosion. Representatives of nine terrorist organizations were called
to Tehran during the first week of June. That month, the U.S. Air
Force's Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia were attacked
with a truck bomb that killed 19 airmen.
Three weeks later, TWA 800 exploded over Long Island, an act
Donaldson calls "one in a long series of murderous attacks on U.S.
interests fomented by the Iranian revolution …"
Shortly after the accident, The Times of London carried a story that
named an Iranian-sponsored terrorist group as responsible, quoting
senior Iranian officials who took credit for the crash.
Donaldson goes on to charge that the FBI embarked on a "covert"
search for Stinger missile parts, pointing to a Bureau search manual
inadvertently left on a boat that contained diagrams of Stinger tubes
and batteries. He also claims that the FBI chose to "conceal" from
investigators and Congress evidence of shoulder-fired missile
components discovered by the scallop boat Alpha Omega.
Kallstrom said he was unaware that the scallop boat crew
supposedly found missile parts but acknowledged that the FBI was
searching for Stinger components.
Asked why the U.S. government would conceal a terrorist attack,
Donaldson has a ready answer: The Clinton administration was
caught flat-footed by the terrorist moves and the smuggling of Stinger
missiles, and it took no precautions that could have prevented aircraft
If all this came to light, Donaldson argues, it could have hurt Clinton's
chances for re-election in 1996.
But Paul Marcone, chief of staff to Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., an
Ohio Democrat who pressed FBI and NTSB officials last year with
questions supplied by Donaldson, scoffs at such reasoning. "It's
ludicrous. Why would they want to cover that up?" asks Marcone,
adding that Clinton could have gained political currency by making
the attack public and then bombing terrorist locations.
While Donaldson clings to his terrorist theory for the crash of TWA
800, he dismisses as "baloney" a claim that the U.S. military
accidentally shot down the jet.
That's the view of the Flight 800 Independent Research
Organization, a collection of some 50 enthusiasts, said Stalcup, who
helped form the group earlier this year.
"It was the eyewitnesses that got me into it," he said, recalling an FBI
media conference in November 1997 that dismissed the missile
theory and said the eyewitnesses saw not a streak rise from the
ocean but the breakup of the plane in the sky.
One of those eyewitnesses is Frederick C. Meyer, an Air National
Guard Blackhawk helicopter pilot from Long Island, who spotted a
streak of light the night of the crash as he was landing about 10 miles
away at Gabreski Airport.
"I saw a streak of light crossing the sky from my right to my left. A
second or two later, I observed the first explosion," said Meyer, a
Vietnam veteran who witnessed missile flights in the service. "I
believe what I saw was a long-range missile."
"The best explanation I've heard to date is that it could've been a
missile," said Stalcup, who notes that traces of bomb ingredients
were found on the plane. Investigators said the traces came from a
police exercise in St. Louis several weeks earlier involving
Like others in his group, Stalcup points to radar evidence that shows
"a fleet of ships," some 30 boats, heading at high speed toward a
military restricted area not far from the crash area that night. "I've
been told by someone the speed can only be military," said Stalcup,
declining to provide his source but saying it came from a former
military radar operator.
A Navy spokesman said no ships were operating within a
40-nautical-mile radius of the crash site.
The Aegis missile cruiser USS Normandy was about 180 miles south
of the crash site, though it was not conducting tests. It had no missiles
with a range to reach the crash area, said the Navy.
Donaldson holds out hope for a larger congressional probe and
additional testing that might point to a missile. In their report, officials
at the Navy's China Lake facility said shooting a shoulder-fired
missile at a 747's fuel tanks would settle "finally and conclusively" the
lingering questions about a supposed missile attack.
But Kallstrom said scientists agreed such tests would not have made
"a material difference" in his criminal probe. "There comes a time
when you have to end an investigation," he said, noting that he
suggested to NTSB officials they pursue any necessary testing.
NTSB officials, however, said it was not their role to conduct testing
for possible criminal activity.
Tom Bowman is a reporter in The Sun's Washington bureau.
Originally published on Sep 19 1999