TWA Flight 800
The Impossible Zoom Climb
Ten-Year Commemoration of TWA Flight 800
By Captain Ray Lahr (retired)
What really happened on the evening of July 17, 1996, off the shore of Long Island? With sincere apologies to those who may not wish to be reminded, this is what I believe happened.
On a pleasant summer evening, TWA800 was making a normal climb on its flight to Paris. At about 13,800 feet, it was hit by one or two missiles. A missile ignited the CWT (center fuel tank). The explosion blew off the nose section, ruptured the front wing spar (which is also the front of the CWT), and broke the keel beam that runs under the bottom of the CWT. The wing separated and the aircraft fell in two flaming balls, each ball fed by the fuel from the separated wing.
Does this sound at odds with the CIA/NTSB scenario that says that a spark of unknown origin ignited the CWT and blew off the nose, and that the crippled aircraft then made a zoom-climb that the eyewitnesses mistook as a missile? Yes, in my opinion there was no zoom-climb. However, a missile was politically unacceptable, so the CIA invoked the zoom-climb in a desperate attempt to dismiss the missile seen by the eyewitnesses. Please consider what the eyewitnesses saw.
Major Fred Meyer saw a missile arc across the sky from right to left. It culminated in at least two ordnance explosions (bright white flashes like flash-bulbs). His copilot, Captain Chris Bauer, was sitting on the left side of the cockpit, and he looked up in time to see a second missile rising from left to right. Then came the huge fuel explosion, and all of the debris fell downward out of the fireball in two flaming streams.
Captain David McClaine and First Officer Vincent Fruschetti on Eastwind Flight 507 were inbound descending to 16,000 feet. They were head-on toTWA800 which was climbing outbound and was limited to 15,000 feet until they were past each other. The Eastwind crew had been visually tracking the oncoming landing lights of TWA800 for a few minutes. As Captain McClaine reached up to turn on his own landing lights, TWA800 just blew up and the aircraft fell down to the water in two balls of flames. This was confirmed by two other airline crews on nearby flights.
Chief Petty Officer Dwight Brumley was a passenger on U S Air 217. He had a window seat and he watched the missile rise and arch over prior to the explosion of TWA800. The debris fell downward.
Mike Wire, Lisa Perry, Paul Angelides, and William Gallahger all saw the missile rising from near the surface towards TWA800 prior to the explosion. The debris fell downward.
The list goes on. However, not a single eyewitness saw the CIA scenario of an explosion, a zoom-climb, a second explosion, a dive, a third explosion, and then a plunge into the ocean.
In support of the eyewitnesses, Captain Richard Russell received a video tape of the ATC radar scope showing four rapidly approaching blips just prior to the explosion.
So how does the NTSB respond to the eyewitness reports? The NTSB simply says that all of these eyewitnesses were wrong and that they didn't understand what they were seeing. The radar blips were anomalies. Furthermore, the NTSB did not allow a single eyewitness to testify at either of its public hearings.
Now mind you, with rare exception, the NTSB did not interview the eyewitnesses, even though the NTSB is charged with that responsibility by Congress. Instead, the NTSB was shoved aside by the FBI, and the FBI conducted the interviews by itself, not even allowing the NTSB to participate in the interviews. Then, in order to discredit the eyewitnesses, the FBI called in the CIA, the master for cover stories. The CIA likewise had not interviewed the eyewitnesses. Instead, the FBI provided the CIA with a selected portion of its 302 forms (a 302 form is the interviewing agent's written recollection of an interview). The witnesses were assigned numbers by the FBI so that their identities could be kept secret. The interviews themselves were not video taped, or audio taped, or even transcribed verbatim.
Working only from the 302 forms provided by the FBI, one individual CIA agent concocted the zoom-climb hypothesis to explain away all of the eyewitness missile reports. A zoom-climb is a rapid pull-up into a steep climb utilizing the forward speed of the aircraft. Such a steep climb is much beyond the capabilities of the engines alone on a large transport aircraft. This CIA agent proposed that after the nose was blown off, the flaming aircraft zoom-climbed from 13,800 feet to about 17,000 feet. The eyewitnesses supposedly mistook the flaming B747 for a missile. Never mind that the eyewitnesses saw a missile rapidly rising from the surface, not a lumbering aircraft rising from a point two and a half miles in the sky. The CIA agent passed his zoom-climb conclusion to the FBI the following morning. Then the NTSB was brought on board. From that moment on, the investigation was shaped to fit the zoom-climb hypothesis.
The CIA created a video animation of its hypothetical zoom-climb and presented it to the FBI. In turn, the FBI presented the video to the world in a prime-time national television program in November, 1998. Boeing wasn't pleased, and it issued a statement the following day saying that it had no knowledge of the data used for the video. The FBI declared there was no evidence of criminality and that it was withdrawing from the investigation. However, the FBI did not release the evidence that it had gathered and analyzed, nor did it release the lab reports that it had prepared. The FBI was not a cooperative partner regarding the sharing of information.
There is reason to believe that something exploded in the passenger cabin of TWA800, and foreign objects were imbedded in some passengers. Red residue was found on a row of seat backs. James Sanders, investigative reporter, had some samples analyzed. The residue was consistent with rocket fuel. The FBI stood by during the autopsies and confiscated all of the foreign objects as they were removed. Those objects were sent to the FBI's own lab for analysis. Reports were written but never released, not even to the other agencies. A determination that the objects were explosive fragments from a missile would have undermined the predetermined cause as being a spark of unknown origin.
Graeme Sephton, an engineer and citizen investigator, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the FBI lab reports. Mr. Sephton was denied. He initiated a lawsuit. Surprisingly, he won and the court ordered the FBI to produce the reports. Subsequently, the FBI came back and said it had searched for the reports and couldn't find them. The court then ruled that the FBI had made a good faith effort, and Mr. Sephton was denied. The most widely publicized and most expensive accident investigation in the history of aviation, and the FBI loses its own lab reports? That is highly unlikely. Presumably, the objects still exist. Obviously, the FBI does not want the public to know what it found.
When I saw the CIA video animation on national television, all of my experience told me that the zoom-climb was impossible. An aircraft cannot continue to fly if the center section of the wing blows up, and the nose, including the cockpit, rips off. Even if the wing had remained intact for a few seconds, the pitch-up after the nose departed would have created an extra g force that would have collapsed the weakened wing.
In addition to assuming that the wing remained intact, the zoom-climb scenario had to make additional assumptions about the condition of the aircraft in order for the zoom-climb to be viable. Let's explore those assumptions.
First, we must also assume that the thrust of the engines remained balanced – all engines had to maintain the same thrust or all had to quit simultaneously to keep the aircraft from yawing and flipping. Remember that when the cockpit left, all engine control cables and electrical wires were ripped away. Which cables snapped first? Was each engine calling for full thrust or shut-down? It is highly unlikely that the thrust remained balanced.
Second, we must also assume that the control surfaces of rudder, elevator, and ailerons remained balanced and neutral. Again, all control inputs to those surfaces were ripped away with the departure of the cockpit. In flight, all of those surfaces are constantly being manipulated either by the pilot or the autopilot. Unfortunately, the pilots and autopilot departed with the cockpit.
Third, we must also assume that the aircraft did not stall during the zoom-climb. A stall would not have left enough forward speed to reach the point where the aircraft impacted the ocean. Now this assumption was impossible. When the 80,000 pounds of nose departed, the c.g. (center-of-gravity) moved about 11 feet toward the tail. The aircraft immediately pitched up and stalled (a stall is when the wing no longer produces lift). The stall was inevitable with the aft c.g. After the aircraft stalled, the aft c.g. would continue to drag the aircraft deeper into the stall and pull it down tail first. There was no way to recover from the stall. The aircraft could never get its nose down and dive as depicted in the CIA video.
When the aircraft exploded, there was enough forward speed to free-fall to the impact point. But let's assume that there was a zoom-climb and that the zoom-climb was almost complete before the stall. The zoom-climb had to come at the expense of forward airspeed. A zoom-climb is a trade of kinetic energy (speed) for potential energy (altitude). Without a dive and some help from an un-stalled wing, the aircraft could not convert the altitude back into the required forward airspeed. It would have crashed short of the actual impact point.
Thus we see that the CIA adopted an impossible set of assumptions in order to make its zoom-climb scenario feasible. The wing had to remain intact. The aircraft had to remain in lateral balance and trim. The aircraft could not be allowed to stall. In my opinion, none of these assumptions were valid.
There was one other step that had to be taken to protect the zoom-climb scenario. The last four seconds of the flight data recorder had to be removed. Those four seconds probably showed the break-up sequence and the loss of the wing. Mr. Glen Schulze, an expert in that field, carefully studied the timing blocks on the FDR tape and established that those four seconds were indeed missing from the tape. Commander William Donaldson discovered that the very last recorded data segment indicated an external explosion in the vicinity of the external sensors for the flight instruments.
I have been struggling for most of 10 years trying to get the CIA and NTSB to release the data and calculations used for the hypothetical zoom-climb. They have steadfastly refused. My lawsuit is scheduled for another hearing on July 10, 2006. It is almost too much to hope for, but there is a slight chance that we might get some good news for the 10 year commemoration.
Although I am a former Navy pilot, and a retired United Airlines pilot, and a former Safety Representative for the Air Line Pilots Association, I no longer represent any of those organizations. This presentation represents my own personal opinions.
Captain Ray Lahr