The federal government concluded after spending $40 million that the explosion of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 off eastern Long Island was likely caused by a spark in the plane’s center fuel tank.
But after two decades, alternative theorists and some eyewitnesses still believe the giant aircraft bound for Paris was felled by more mysterious means — a terrorist’s missile, an electromagnetic pulse weapon, stray U.S. Navy ordnance, perhaps even fragments of a meteor — some 12 minutes after takeoff from Kennedy Airport on July 17, 1996.
Chris Fidis, 58, of West Hempstead, a telecommunications technology consultant, said radar and other data indicate the Boeing 747-100 carrying the 230 people who perished was downed by a high-energy electromagnetic field in a botched U.S. Navy missile test.
Fred Meyer, 76, a Southampton retired military pilot who had been flying within sight of Flight 800 that night, said the explosion of “ordnance” near the jet reminded him of antiaircraft missiles he encountered flying over Haiphong Harbor during the Vietnam War.
Randy Penny, 52, a boater who witnessed the explosion, said he distinctly saw a fiery object rise from below before the plane came apart in a ball of fire.
Even a senior federal investigator responsible for reassembling the shattered plane from more than 9,000 recovered parts said he does not believe a fuel explosion caused the crash. That investigator, former National Transportation Safety Board employee Henry F. Hughes, twice petitioned the NTSB to reopen the investigation, petitions whose signatories included former pilots, at least one military officer and other aviation crash investigators.
But representatives of government agencies from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the NTSB have said examinations of thousands of recovered pieces of the plane, interviews with more than 700 eyewitnesses, radar logs and other evidence showed no sign of criminal activity.
Instead, federal investigators concluded that residual gases in an otherwise empty jet fuel tank, vaporized by the heat of an air-conditioning unit housed beneath the tank in the belly of the plane, were ignited by an electrical surge involving wires leading from a fuel gauge.
“We believe the probable cause was a voltage transfer, a short circuit,” in wires leading to a fuel probe in the tank, said Paul Schuda, director of the NTSB training center training center in Ashburn, Virginia. The reconstructed Flight 800 jet is permanently housed a few steps from Schuda’s office at the training center, outside Washington, D.C.
Schuda said although NTSB investigators were never able to conclusively say what ignited the vapors, they believe the voltage transfer “caused either an overheating of that probe and a hot surface ignition, or a spark on the probe and an ignition of the fuel vapors that were in the tank.”
The NTSB originally published its findings that ruled out a missile or other attack in a 417-page report released in August 2000. The report was written after a four-year, $40 million investigation that involved multiple government agencies, including scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and agents of both the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Internal documents later released by the FBI under freedom of information requests show that agency officials initially were alarmed that the downing of Flight 800 may have been a criminal act or the work of terrorists.
FBI pursued leads that included the discovery of trace amounts of high explosive on pieces of fabric recovered from the plane, and pitting on metal parts initially thought to possibly indicate an explosive device.
A March 5, 1997, FBI memo referred to a phone interview, in which a source offered “a forty-five page write up describing how the United States Navy accidentally shot down TWA Flight 800, while test firing a missile with a kinetic warhead.” The source told the FBI that a Navy P-3 Orion plane was observing the test firing, and may have been above Flight 800 when the missile struck.
But by late 1997, the FBI withdrew from the investigation, concluding there was no evidence of criminality or a Navy mishap. Metal experts said that damage to the plane was more consistent with the types of low-velocity explosions that happen when fuel vapors ignite, rather than high-velocity explosion of a missile warhead.
Richard Bott, a naval air warfare expert who examined the wreckage of Flight 800 for the FBI, said at an NTSB public hearing that it is easy to spot damage caused by a missile or bomb.
“But no piece of the wreckage was found with high-velocity impact damage,” Bott said at the Dec. 8, 1997, hearing in Baltimore. “And no piece of missing aircraft structure is big enough to contain all the damage from a warhead.”
Still, those findings have not assuaged speculation that federal officials whitewashed the accident report to calm fears and protect the aviation industry.
Twice, Hughes’ petition urged the NTSB to reopen the case, saying federal investigators mishandled evidence, misinterpreted radar data and pressured witnesses to recant assertions that they had seen a missile.
The petitioners offered what they considered new evidence, including Federal Aviation Administration radar data they said showed the ejection of parts of the plane at several times the speed of sound. They said that could only have been caused by the high explosives carried by missile warheads, and not the low-velocity explosion of a fuel-air mixture.
“I’m absolutely sure that the center fuel tank did not explode,” Hughes said Wednesday. “They never, ever objectively examined the information we provided.”
But the NTSB rejected the latest petition on July 2, 2014, after officials concluded it had presented no new evidence. They said assumptions of the petitioners regarding the accuracy of radar in tracking the speed of individual parts of the disintegrating plane were unrealistic.
Penny said after telling FBI investigators that he saw a flare-like trail streak skyward moments before he saw Flight 800 explode, he was repeatedly grilled by agents, who seemed to want him to say otherwise.
“They were coming every other day, and it got to be too much,” said Penny, of Moriches. “It would be different people, always two of them, and one would say ‘maybe you saw this instead’. And a couple of days later another couple of guys would come around and go through it all over again.”
Meyer has said he remains convinced that what he observed was a missile attack.
“I saw a vapor trail streaking across the sky to my left and then an ordnance explosion, ….” Meyer said in a video interview with News 12 Long Island.
“I’m very troubled by this thing,” he said. “I think the government has to do some explaining.”
Federal investigators say the streaks of light witnesses reported seeing actually were plumes of burning fuel that trailed the crippled aircraft before it fell into the Atlantic Ocean. They said because it would have taken about 40 seconds for the sound of the explosion to reach the Long Island shoreline, most of the witnesses did not first glimpse Flight 800 until almost a mile’s contrail, as many reported they had.
Fidis is among doubters who offer an alternative theory — that an electromagnetic pulse brought down the plane.
Fidis, a technology buff who began immersing himself in aircraft mishaps after a plane aboard which he was a passenger had an in-flight engine fire in the early 1970s, said government documents and conversations with investigation insiders led him to conclude Flight 800 had strayed into the path of an electromagnetic pulse weapon deployed by a Navy ship that had been in the area.
“It was like taking a can of fuel and sticking it in a microwave oven,” Fidis said. “The wiring theory was used as an alibi so they could explain this away.”
The NTSB acknowledged that electromagnetic radiation posed a risk to aircraft, and had even considered that while investigating the plane crash that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in Croatia three months earlier. But the NTSB concluded that energy sources in the area surrounding Flight 800 never reached the minimum energy needed to ignite fuel vapors.