Why Congress Must Reopen the TWA 800 Investigation

On July 2, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that it would not reopen the investigation into the destruction of TWA 800.  This was the Boeing 747 that was blown out of the sky ten miles south of the Long Island coast on July 17, 1996, killing all 230 people on board.

The TWA 800 Project, a team of former aviation investigators and scientists, had petitioned the NTSB to examine evidence that pointed toward a missile strike on the airline.  Not surprisingly, the NTSB, which had invested four years of resources to prove some other theory, any other theory, chose to stick to its original findings that flammable fuel/air vapors somehow caused the explosion.

Books have been written on this subject – I co-authored one of them with James Sanders, First Strike – so readers can access the body of evidence for a missile strike on their own.  An excellent point of entry is the documentary produced last year by the TWA 800 Project, simply called TWA Flight 800 and now available via streaming on Netflix.

One of the six whistleblowers profiled in that documentary deserves special attention.  His name is Hank Hughes.  At the time of the explosion, he was a senior accident investigator for the NTSB and was a member of the “Go-Team” that headed immediately to the crash site.

Hughes was responsible for determining whether or not any proposed scenario for the cause of the crash was consistent with the damage to the airplane interior.  So disturbed was Hughes by what he calls an “egregiously conducted investigation” that he attached a detailed affidavit to the TWA 800 Project’s petition to re-open the investigation.  What follows is a summary of that affidavit.

As Hughes points out, Title 49 of the U.S. Code gives the NTSB full authority to investigate all commercial airplane crashes.  That did not happen with TWA 800.  The FBI was “immediately and overwhelmingly present” at the site and quickly took control of the investigation.  Initially, the agency did so, says Hughes, “under the presumption that a criminal act had occurred.”  Even in these circumstances, however, the FBI had no lawful authority over the NTSB.  Indifferent to the law, the FBI seized control, and the NTSB leadership yielded without protest.

As it happened, the FBI agents had so little experience in aviation disasters that Hughes had to give them a tutorial on evidence handling.  By that time, however, much of the damage had already been done.  Unlike the NTSB, which records interviews, FBI agents simply take notes.  As a result, the interviews the agents conducted with the hundreds of eyewitnesses were “neither thorough nor reliable.”  That notwithstanding, the FBI would not allow the NTSB to talk to the witnesses for months, and only then under strained circumstances.

Despite its collective lack of know-how, the FBI also kept NTSB investigators away from various pieces of wreckage.  FBI agents made a practice, in fact, of screening physical evidence before NTSB investigators could see it and “withheld wreckage with suspicious damage patterns for unknown periods of time.”  In some instances, the FBI took evidence from the reconstruction hangar in Calverton, NY without allowing the NTSB to see it or analyze it.  “These prohibitions were tantamount to undermining a federal investigation,” says Hughes, “and violated NTSB standard operating procedures and regulations.”

FBI agents were not the only culprits.  Hughes openly accuses the NTSB’s Dr. David Mayer of changing location recovery tags on the wreckage.  By reclassifying where in the debris field an item was recovered, a dishonest investigator could create a crash scenario to fit a more politically acceptable outcome.

“I personally witnessed Dr. Mayer changing wreckage recovery tags on interior wreckage components without proper authority,” says Hughes.  “Mayer’s changes falsified the factual record of the actual physical locations from which those components were recovered.”  When Hughes challenged Mayer, Mayer told him, “I didn't want to confuse the Chairman.”  That chairman was Jim Hall, an experience-free political appointee.

TWA investigators had independently come to distrust Mayer and made their objections known as well.  It troubled them and Hughes that several NTSB officials signed off on Mayer’s report despite the accusations of tampering.  These officials solved the problem by having a Navy captain, who knew little about the database problems, testify at a December 1997 NTSB hearing instead of Mayer.  In this way, says Hughes, NTSB brass “curtailed all meaningful discussion of the database details while protecting Mayer from being held accountable, criticized and/or embarrassed.”

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) also expressed concern about the efforts of Mayer and others to alter the database.  Its coordinator, Rocky Miller, was told ominously by a top NTSB official, “If you believe in corporate memory, you will keep your mouth shut.”  To its credit, the union did not shy from telling the truth in its final report: “A high pressure event breached the fuselage and the fuselage unzipped due to the event. The explosion [of the tank] was a result of this event.”

Contrary to NTSB regulations, Hughes, although a group chairman, was not allowed to write an analysis of what he found.  The evidence his group gathered led him to much the same conclusion as the IAMAW’s.  The pattern of seat damage and passenger injuries strongly suggested not a low-speed fuel tank explosion, as the NTSB would later insist, but “a high-order explosion from a military-type explosive detonating a significant distance away from the airframe.”  Says Hughes, “This was the first time in my 26 years as an NTSB accident investigator that I had been ordered not to write an analysis.”

Hughes was not the only high-level investigator whose analysis was suppressed.  As he notes, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Charles Wetli and the NTSB’s Aero-Medical Forensic Consultant, Col. Dennis Shanahan, M.D., were also told not to submit analyses of their findings.

The most spectacular bit of mischief involved the CIA.  The FBI had, for no good reason, commissioned the CIA to create an animation to prove that the 270 eyewitnesses who reported seeing something like a missile saw something other than a missile.  The CIA analysts concluded that what they saw was a noseless aircraft rocketing into space for another 3,500 or so feet before crashing into the sea.  This scenario, says Hughes unequivocally, “is physically impossible given what the FAA radar tracking data shows.”

According to Hughes, the CIA analysts knew this was impossible, but FBI honcho James Kallstrom went ahead and showed the animation at a wrap-up press conference to prove that there was “absolutely no evidence” that a criminal event destroyed the aircraft.

At both public NTSB hearings, the first in 1997 and the second in 2000, Kallstrom made sure there was no eyewitness testimony.  “The suppression of eyewitness accounts at an NTSB hearing was unprecedented,” says Hughes.  “This has never occurred before or since the NTSB investigation of TWA Flight 800.”  The aforementioned Dr. Mayer worked with the lead CIA analyst for sixteen months to align the witness accounts with the CIA’s impossible zoom-climb scenario.

There is much more, and I would invite those interested to read Hughes’s testimony in full.  “During the course of my 42-year career as an investigator,” Hughes concludes, “the investigation of TWA Flight 800 was the only case in which I witnessed deception, lies and corruption on the parts of investigators and their management. The extraordinary measures to which the NTSB, FBI and CIA went to falsify and distort witness statements or accounts of what occurred, to alter and hide physical evidence and to mount a false public relations campaign to misinform the public, was unconscionable.”

Given its need to protect the “corporate memory,” no one really expected the NTSB to open this potentially criminal can of worms on its own.  Now it is left to Congress, and if Congress does not act, no one will.

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