TWA 800: Breaking -- Air Traffic Controller Tells All

As I hoped would happen, American Thinker’s series on TWA Flight 800 has prompted individuals with first hand knowledge to come forward. “Mark Johnson” is one. An air traffic controller (ATC), he worked the night of July 17, 1996 -- the night TWA Flight 800 was destroyed -- at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) located in Westbury, New York.

Johnson has provided me with his real name, and I have confirmed that he was in a position to know what he says he knows. He requested that I use an alias because he has children who depend on him. The federal government, he believes, “will seek revenge, retribution and/or any other remedy they feel like. I would be fearful my pension would be at risk.” I have heard this sentiment voiced by many people involved in this incident.

Although Johnson was not responsible for tracking TWA Flight 800, he spoke directly with the ATC who did. In fact, he asked him “plenty of questions to prepare myself for the ‘suits’ who were beginning to arrive.” Along with several other ATCs, he viewed the radar tape of the incident. According to Johnson, “A primary radar return (ASR-9) indicated vertical movement intersecting TWA 800.”

An advanced radar system, the Northrop Grumman ASR-9 is able to detect a “target” in severe clutter even when the target has no transponder. The absence of a transponder is what distinguishes a “primary radar return” from a “secondary” one. In others words, the radar picked up a small, unidentified, ascending object intersecting TWA 800 in the second before the 747 “disappeared from radar.”

After Johnson and his supervisor watched the video tape replay with audio, they turned to each other and said in unison, “What the f***!" Asked by his supervisor if he had ever seen anything like this before, Johnson said yes -- while in the Navy days doing missile test fires at sea.

A day later, now knowing the full scope of the tragedy, Johnson asked if he could take another look at the radar tape. “Can’t, it’s gone,” said his supervisor. “We had better say nothing,” said Johnson, “or the f***ing government will make us disappear.” The supervisor agreed.

I asked Johnson what he and his colleagues thought in the days and weeks to follow. He answered in one word, “cover-up.” As he explained, in incidents involving fatalities, the FAA demands that the tapes be preserved as evidence of fault or no fault. “So -- no tape, no fault. What a sham!”

Word spread quickly from TRACON. Within a half hour of the crash, Clinton anti-terror czar Richard Clarke was summoning a high level meeting at the White House. A civilian plane crash never before prompted this kind of response. The eyewitness accounts had yet to come in. The radar tape had set the wheels in motion.

CNN’s Christine Negroni provided the most detailed account of the radar’s reception in Washington in her book Deadly Departure, an otherwise predictable rehashing of the government position. Negroni’s primary source was Ron Schleede, then a deputy director of aviation safety at the NTSB. On the morning after the crash, July 18, an FAA official showed him a radar plot that got his complete attention. “Holy Christ, it looks bad,” he said at the time. He told Negroni, “It showed this track that suggested something fast made a turn and took the airplane.”

That same morning, said Schleede, “The FAA was working with people at the top secret level. They were in a crisis room with intelligence people and everybody else.” That same day, before the story could be suppressed, authorities were telling the New York Times about “a mysterious radar blip that appeared to move rapidly toward the plane just before the explosion.”

Enter the CIA. Its analysts were tasked with explaining away not only the eyewitness testimony, but also, apparently, the radar. In a July 20 internal memo, a CIA analyst reported “no evidence of a missile” in the radar data. By July 21, “experts” were telling the Times that the radar blip was actually “an electronic phantom image.”

Not everyone was buying the spin. Jim Holtsclaw, a deputy regional director for the Air Transport Association (ATA), arrived in Washington soon after TWA 800 went down. There, a friend put Holtsclaw in touch with an ATC in New York (not Mark Johnson) who had gotten hold of a copy of the tape. The ATC promised to send it. “You decide what you are seeing,” he told Holtsclaw.

Holtsclaw knew something about radar. He served as LAX Control Tower manager and ATC manager with American Airlines before moving on to the Air Transport Association. As he would later testify under oath, his copy of the radar tape showed “a primary target at the speed of approximately 1200 knots converging with TWA 800, during the climb out phase of TWA 800.”

About a month after the TWA 800 disaster, retired United Airline pilot and accident investigator Dick Russell received a phone call from Holtsclaw. Russell wrote down what Holtsclaw had to tell him verbatim, 

the gist of which was that “TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a U.S. Navy guided missile ship which was in area W-105. It has been a cover-up from the word go.”

Russell emailed this information to some select friends in the industry.

Although recipients had vowed to keep the information among them, one of them posted the information on the Internet, and it somehow found its way through French intelligence on to Pierre Salinger.

Although a former U.S Senator and press secretary to JFK, Salinger proved no match for the Clinton administration and its friends in the media. In the month of November 1996 alone the New York Times ran four articles with headlines that mocked Salinger.

A year later, the FBI closed its case. Thanks to the “expertise” of the CIA, the FBI’s Jim Kallstrom was able to assure America that the 258 eyewitnesses to a missile strike could not tell up from down and that the  “vertical movement” Mark Johnson saw “intersecting TWA 800” was nothing more than “a ghost of Jet Express 18 which was at a different location.”

It is all so easy for the White House that has the New York Times in its pocket.

To learn more, please read Jack Cashill’s new book, TWA 800: The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy (Regnery: July 5). 

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