Going After Boeing

 
Washington Weekly November 15, 1999
 
By EDWARD ZEHR
 
The Seattle Times recently took the Boeing company to task for engaging in "a quiet pursuit of far-fetched theories" regarding the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996. It seems that the company incurred the stern disapproval of the newspaper which noted that "Boeing has actually refused to rule out a bomb or missile in the July 1996 TWA crash." How gauche of Boeing not to snap to attention, click heels and salute smartly when the government barks an order. Once more our vaunted "free" press show themselves to be the government's obedient, fawning bootlickers. (With a few honorable exceptions, such as the Riverside Press-Enterprise, which reported on the glaring discrepancies in the government's account of the crash early on). 
 
With all possible due deference to the editorial writers at the Seattle Times, who seem to have bestowed themselves honorary qualifications as aerospace experts almost as freely as Oxford cloaked its errant, one-time scholar, Bill Clinton, with an honorary doctorate as a consolation
prize for the one he failed to earn as a student there, what actual qualifications do they have to utter definitive opinions on so technical a subject? Do they really imagine that they are better qualified than Boeing's engineers to understand the subject matter? Ah, but Boeing has a vested interest in avoiding possible liability for the crash -- they are being sued by family members of some of the crash victims. I might add that an inveterate, kneejerk-liberal rag such as the Seattle Times also has a vested interest in covering up possible malfeasance by Clinton administration officials who have played fast and loose with the crash investigation from the very outset. 
 
According to the November 8 Progressive Review, Boeing is presently "conducting chemical metallurgical tests, [and] reviewing FBI interviews with witnesses, many of whom saw something apparently streaking towards the plane before the crash." 
 
Yes, it would be nice to know why more than a hundred eyewitnesses saw something streaking towards the plane just before the crash if, in fact, nothing was streaking towards the plane -- you know, abstruse technical considerations such as that. 
 
Occasionally I get e-mail from people who wish to know why I sometimes inject psychological considerations into my commentary. The answer is, I do it because our present political dementia cannot be fully explained using logical considerations alone. I would cite, for example, the low comedy of hardcore administration supporters on Usenet (sort of the low-rent district of Internet) trying desperately to make sense of the fantasy leaked by government "investigators" to their pals in the mainstream media. The hallucination in question had to do with an "explanation" of the light seen streaking up toward the aircraft as streams of fuel from the plane's ruptured tanks which were somehow ignited and burned from the bottom up, appearing to those on the ground as the glow of a missile streaking up towards the plane. 
 
Now, anyone who would believe so preposterous an "explanation" as that must have flunked high school physics. (Who takes physics in high school any more? It's far too difficult for the little sweethearts -- that's why our engineering and physical science graduate schools are chock-a-block with foreign students these days). Not that there is anything particularly technical about this issue. Even an individual so technically dim as a mainstream anchor person should be able to understand it, although none of them seemed to get it. Anyone with so much as half a brain and a smidgen of common sense ought to be able to figure out that fuel ejected into the  atmosphere from a ruptured tank at hundreds of miles per hour is going to atomize and vaporize, not fall towards earth in neat little stream while trailing along behind the aircraft at full speed like a faithful little puppy dog. How did the Times characterize Boeing's investigation -- "a quiet pursuit of far-fetched theories"? I wonder if their editorial writers are familiar with the Arab expression, "to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel"? 
 
As a one-time aerospace engineer with 35 years of experience, I guess the thing that bothers me most about TWA-800 is the number of aerospace professionals who simply do not believe the government's version of the mishap. Unfortunately, the writers at the Seattle Times seem to lack the intellectual honesty and personal integrity to acknowledge this, although they are certainly in a position to know about it. Instead of seeking the truth, they set about disinforming the public using snide innuendo, unsupported by verifiable facts, shrill name-calling (e.g. "paranoid conspiracy theorists") and very little else. All of this is done in pursuit of a smelly little hidden agenda which these "journalists" are too dishonest to acknowledge. I wonder if they really understand how ugly a picture they are painting of themselves? 
 
 
I have talked to airline captains who regard the government's version of the TWA-800 mishap as utter nonsense. One of these pilots told of the many takeoffs he had made from Saudi Arabia under temperature conditions far more stringent than those experienced by the TWA aircraft at JFK on the evening of the crash. This pilot reckoned that if the Boeing 747 did indeed have a design flaw such as the one postulated by government investigators he would have died a hundred deaths. Be that as it may, there is only one recorded instance of a heavy Boeing commercial aircraft having a fuel tank explosion in flight and that one was using highly volatile military aviation fuel. Thus, on a purely statistical basis, the probability of the government's explanation of the mishap being correct is vanishingly remote. And yet the technological dumbbells at the Seattle Times have the temerity to demand that we all bow low to the government's dubious decree. That is what one expects of people who are guided by illogical motives of which they seem blissfully unconscious. 
 
In a recent interview, former Navy Commander Bill Donaldson, who has investigated the TWA-800 crash for two years on behalf of the Associated Retired Aviation Professionals, noted that 26 other transport aircraft worldwide have been shot down "by a man-portable anti-aircraft missile." Thus there is nothing the least bit unique in the concept that the TWA flight was intercepted by such a missile. It was well within range of some of the more advanced shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons, and the eyewitness sightings are consistent with such a
missile being fired at the aircraft. A Lufthansa cargo jet was fired at with such a weapon in September, near Karachi airport in Pakistan. 
 
But gosh, that doesn't jibe with the official version of events. Doesn't that mean that Donaldson must be a "paranoid conspiracy theorist"? Bill Donaldson is a retired Navy pilot with "more than 24 years of experience in virtually all phases of naval aviation." Among his other qualifications, Donaldson lists "graduation from the Navy's Postgraduate Aviation Safety School in Monterey, California, where I completed the long course in aviation safety and crash investigation. I have served as a safety officer and crash investigator at both the Squadron and Air Wing levels, and was qualified as a maintenance check pilot in six models of prop and jet aircraft. Also, I am a qualified air traffic controller and served for two years as a Carrier Controlled Approach Officer." I would be interested to know what the technical qualifications of the editorial staff at the Seattle Times are to address this subject with such implied omniscience. If, as I suspect, they have none, I wonder whether they have ever bothered to get the opinions of people with the technical expertise to speak knowledgeably on the subject. If not, what qualifies them to hurl unsupported, puerile insults at people who do have the technical expertise to address the subject? Is this something
they were instructed to do in the PC playbook? The problem with too many "journalists" today is that they are mal-educated, indoctrinated, opinionated far beyond their ability to comprehend and sorely lacking intellectual integrity. 
 
Commander Donaldson recently gave interviewer John F. McManus his own version of the TWA-800 crash: 
 
      "I believe that a shoulder-launched missile was fired from a small boat positioned less than three nautical miles to the southeast of the aircraft. The missile punched through the underside of the aircraft at a point where the left wing meets the fuselage. Its warhead, a type that explodes immediately after impact, penetrated approximately three additional feet into the six-foot-deep tank of fuel in that wing. 

      The resulting explosion caused a massive over-pressurization of all three left-wing tanks blowing open the top skin of the wing. The explosion also impacted the empty center fuel tank, resulting in a secondary fuel/air explosion under and in that center tank. All of this led to catastrophic failures of the nose, tail, and left wing. The plane's pieces, plus the passengers and crew, then plunged into the sea in about 30 seconds." 
 
Donaldson characterized the FBI's investigation as a "token effort," noting that his own investigation located 20 eyewitnesses the FBI had not even interviewed. Donaldson claims that, "Some of these persons were critically important eyewitnesses, people who were in boats and were first on the scene and who claim to have seen other suspicious boats in the area." 
 
The Commander also noted that the FBI had the Navy's China Lake [California] Naval Air Weapons facility study recovered debris from the crash -- until the Navy experts recommended that missiles be fired into 747 fuel tanks in an effort to replicate the damage patterns observed in
the debris. At that point the FBI quickly terminated its investigation. 
 
The CIA even got into the act with an animated cartoon purporting to show what happened to the aircraft after "the fuel tank exploded." It was laughed out of court by aviation professionals, and I shouldn't wonder. The CIA version claimed that the aircraft climbed 3,000 feet after the nose fell off. 
 
Intrigued by the notion, I ran some numbers on it and even did a small rudimentary flight simulation that indicated the aircraft might have ballooned less than a thousand feet, using the most favorable assumptions. Yes, I used to do aircraft simulations professionally back in the days before Pontius was a pilot (as they used to say in the RAF). Those were the days before you could buy one off the shelf at Toys-R-Us, which is to say sometime before the Flood. 
 
I am told that another engineer ran some numbers that indicate the aircraft might have climbed a bit more than a thousand feet. (Simulating the flight of aircraft that are disintegrating is not a very exact science). I bent over backwards to make my assumptions conservative, which is what any engineer would do. Nevertheless a lot of people assume that I cooked the figures. Let them assume what they will, I can assure you that  there is no way anybody, using reasonable assumptions, could massage those numbers enough to get that aircraft up by anything like 3,000
feet in its lugubrious condition. The CIA cartoon show was sheer fantasy. 
 
I am also told that the altitude estimates were based on radar data rather than flight dynamics considerations. If so, it is possible that the data is spurious. This sort of thing is not unknown -- radar sometimes shows things that aren't there. For example, the flight data recorder recovered
from the Egypt Air Flight 990 crash site does not confirm previously described radar data. (An ominous report surfaced on Friday that fisherman close to the site where the crash occurred heard two loud "booms" just before the aircraft plunged into the sea. I'll get to that another time). 
 
Commander Donaldson conducted his own tests on the Jet-A fuel used by TWA-800. He maintains that you can't even light it with a match unless it is heated to at least 127 deg F. In 1997 he extracted some fuel from a 747 whose engines had been running for about the same length
of time as those of TWA-800 when the mishap occurred. The fuel's temperature was only 68 deg F. Donaldson described what he did next: 
 
      "Then, I took the fuel home, poured some into a pan sitting in my outdoor barbecue, and placed three lighted fireplace matches into the pool of fuel. The matches went out! Yet this is the fuel that, under the very same temperature conditions, supposedly exploded because of some mysterious spark and brought the plane down. Impossible! Even if you heat the fuel beyond 127 and stick a match in it, you'll get fire but no explosion." 
 
The point of the exercise is that commercial aviation fuel is designed to burn in the engine, not in the tank. The government's explanation of a "fuel tank explosion" is a real stretch. If there were even a remote possibility of this happening there should have been a lot more such incidents
considering the number of 747 takeoffs there have been under far more adverse conditions. 
 
A telling point was made when James Sanders, who was criminally prosecuted by the government for helping to expose the fraudulent nature of the mishap investigation, was allowed to photograph the debris of TWA-800 in preparing his defense. At Donaldson's request, Sanders "took close-up photos of the area where the left side wing fuel tank meets the fuselage, and the underneath part of the fuselage below the center fuel tank. It is here in this tank that the government said the crippling explosion took place." 
 
Guess what? One of Sanders' photos showed the bottom of the center fuel tank to be "domed upward 14 inches." If the fuel tank had simply exploded as the government maintains, "that metal surface should be domed downward, the result of an explosion inside the tank," said Donaldson quite plausibly. Which raises an exceedingly troubling question: has the government told us the truth about what its investigators have found in the debris? Seen in this light, the inane prattle of the Seattle Times editorial writers pales into insignificance. Those guys really don't know anything -- they talk just to hear their own words reverberate in the hollow round of their skulls.