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A Look Back … The Crash of TWA Flight 800

It was Wednesday, July 17, 1996, 8:31:51 p.m.

Capt. David McClaine of Eastwind Airlines, piloting a Boeing 737 commuter flight near the coast of Long Island, had just become the first recorded eyewitness to one of the deadliest and most mysterious commercial air crashes in U.S. aviation history. It would be almost one minute before the Boston air traffic controller with whom McClaine was speaking would realize the importance of what he had reported.

8:31:57: “Stinger Bee five oh seven, I'm sorry. I missed it. Ah, you’re on eighteen. Did you say something else?”

8:32:01: “We just saw an explosion up ahead of us here something [like] about sixteen thousand feet [altitude] or something like that. It just went down—to the water.”

The crash of TWA Flight 800 touched off the most extensive, complex, and costly air disaster investigation in US history. Had the crash been the result of state-sponsored terrorism, it would have been considered an act of war.

Investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) almost immediately focused on three possible causes:

  • a bomb
  • a missile, or
  • a mechanical failure.

The missile theory seemed particularly plausible because of reports from dozens of eyewitnesses in the Long Island area who, on the evening of July 17, recalled seeing something resembling a flare or firework ascend and culminate in an explosion.

Because of the possibility that international terrorists may have been involved, the FBI requested assistance from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The CIA responded to the FBI’s request within 24 hours of the crash. This support consisted primarily of help from the Counterterrorist Center in the Directorate of Operations and from a small group of analysts in the Office of Weapons, Technology and Proliferation in the Directorate of Intelligence.

The sources of information CIA analysts used to fully review the events of the crash included:

  • FBI summaries of statements from 244 eyewitnesses
  • DeLorme Version 4.0 Street Atlas USA commercial mapping software
  • Two sets of radar tracking data
  • Meteorological data
  • Infrared data from a U.S. military satellite
  • The precise times at which the cockpit voiced recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) ceased operating
  • The aircraft’s location, altitude, speed, and heading at the moment the CVR and FDR ceased operating
  • The NTSB observation that an abrupt sound was recorded just before the CVR stopped operating
  • The NTSB observation that no other unusual activity was recorded on either the CVR or FDR.

After eight months of work, the analysts concluded with confidence and full substantiation that the eyewitnesses had not seen a missile. To reach this conclusion, the analysts scrutinized the eyewitness reports in painstaking detail, a process that took over a year and entailed more than 2,000 man-hours of work.

On March 28, 1997, CIA’s Deputy Director for Intelligence sent a memorandum to FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom summarizing the results:

Our analysis demonstrates that the eyewitness sightings of greatest concern to us – the ones originally interpreted to be of a possible missile attack – took place after the first of several explosions aboard the aircraft … combined with the total absence of physical evidence of a missile attack, [this] leads CIA analysts to conclude that no such attack occurred.

The work of CIA analysts helped many better understand the eyewitnesses’ observations and also helped unravel the Flight 800 mystery.

For the entire story on the crash of TWA Flight 800, visit the recently released article.

Historical Document
Posted: Aug 14, 2008 07:03 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:06 PM