By: John E. Fiorentino
July 17, 2012 marked the sixteenth anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, New York. All 230 people aboard the aircraft were killed.
Much has been written and debated about the events of 7/17/96. Much of that debate has been initiated by this author. There are many others of course, some supportive of the government's findings as to the cause of the crash, and some who are critical of it. But one thing is certain -- many questions still remain.
Capt Ray Lahr, a retired airline pilot who lives in Malibu California has been battling the government for years in an attempt to extricate the data upon which they manufactured their video depictions of TWA 800's demise.
Specifically, in Lahr v. NTSB, et al., the retired pilot has sued the National Transportation Safety Board, Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
In 2006, Capt. Lahr won a partial victory in court before U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz who granted Lahr access to several documents primarily from the CIA. The case continued its way through the courts with Lahr pushing the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court in 2010. The Court has refused to hear the case.
The fortitude of Ray Lahr
Having been personally involved in researching, investigating and writing about this case for many years, my admiration for Ray Lahr runs quite high. Although I disagree with many of Lahr's contentions, I certainly agree with his position that what has been termed the "zoom-climb" of TWA Flight 800 has no basis in reality.
Two separate video depictions of TWA 800's demise were produced -- one video by the CIA, and the other by the NTSB. Both cartoons show TWA Flight 800 ascending several thousand feet trailing smoke and flames after the nose section of the aircraft had effectively been decapitated, by what NTSB determined was an "explosion" in the plane's Center Wing Tank. Lahr has demonstrated, and aviation experts that I have consulted have confirmed that this event is essentially an aerodynamic impossibility.
Nonetheless, CIA and NTSB maintain that it was this "zoom-climb" that accounts for the witness reports of a flare-like object which many reported seeing approaching the doomed aircraft prior to the explosion. The government maintains that the witnesses actually saw TWA 800 "in various stages of crippled flight," rather than what many came to describe as a "missile."
Boeing disavows knowledge of video depiction
Shortly after the release of the CIA video, which was commissioned by the FBI, Boeing (the aircraft manufacturer) made this statement:
November 18, 1997
"The FBI's assessment that it has not found any criminal evidence in the investigation of the loss of TWA Flight 800 does not change the role of The Boeing Company in the continuing effort to determine the cause of this tragedy.
The role of The Boeing Company in the investigation remains the same as it has been since the early hours following the tragedy. We continue to assist the National Transportation Safety Board in their effort to determine what happened and we will keep providing whatever information and resources we can to help in that effort, including participating in the upcoming public hearing.
Boeing provided information about the design, operation and performance of the 747 to the FBI throughout their entire investigation. However, Boeing was not involved in the production of the video shown today, nor have we had the opportunity to obtain a copy or fully understand the data used to create it.
While we provided basic aerodynamic information to assist in the CIA's analysis of the airplane's performance, we are not aware of the data that was used to develop the video.
The video's explanation of the eyewitness observations can be best assessed by the eyewitnesses themselves.
Since the beginning of the investigation, Boeing has never subscribed to any one theory. Our role continues to be in determining how and why this tragedy occurred. We remain committed to that goal."
Those at Boeing of course were not the only one's who were "not aware of the data that was used to develop the video." In fact, at times it seemed impossible to find anyone who was aware of just what data was used to concoct the CIA cartoon.
Although the government has steadfastly resisted releasing the critical data upon which they based their contentions, Ray Lahr through his court case has been able to determine that the whole idea was essentially the product of one man at the NTSB using a computer program he constructed. A program whose input data apparently exists only somewhere in the ethereal dimensions of what might best be termed the "Twilight Zone."
Only I know what I am saying!
The one man at NTSB responsible for the data used to construct the videos was Dennis Crider, whose rather long-winded title reads; National Resource Specialist for Vehicle Simulation in the Vehicle Performance Division of the Office of Research and Engineering, NTSB. If that isn't enough to take your breath away, what Mr. Crider did certainly will.
In his Declaration before the UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA WESTERN DIVISION, Mr. Crider indicated the following;
1. I am employed as a National Resource Specialist for Vehicle Simulation in the Vehicle Performance Division of the Office of Research and Engineering for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). I have held this position since the early part of 2002. I joined the NTSB in October of 1995 as an Aerospace Engineer, specializing in Vehicle Performance, and continued in this position until early 2002. My principal role is to determine the motion of a vehicle, such as an airplane or submarine, through the accident sequence and to determine what caused that motion.
2. On July 17, 1996, a Boeing 747 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about 8 miles south of East Moriches, New York, after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport. This flight was a regularly scheduled flight identified as TWA flight 800.
3. My superiors at the NTSB, who directed my actions, assigned me to the investigation shortly after the initial launch.
4. My first involvement with the TWA flight 800 investigation was to determine the trajectories for parts of the aircraft, and thus their point of origin relative to their recovered position on the ocean floor, based upon the known radar data and flight data recorder (FDR) information. I drafted a Trajectory Study to document my findings……….. I performed this work on my own, with the guidance of the management of the NTSB, but no investigative group was formed for this task.
5. Following this Trajectory Study, management of the NTSB determined that it would be beneficial to derive the flight path of the main wreckage for TWA flight 800 after the separation of the forward fuselage. I was assigned this task. I wrote four reports discussing the flight path of TWA flight 800: the Main Wreckage Flight Path Study (November 21, 1997), Errata Main Wreckage Flight Path Study (December 4, 1997), Addendum I to Main Wreckage Flight Path Study (January 31, 2000), and Addendum II to Main Wreckage Flight Path Study (June 9, 2000).
Under the heading COLLECTION OF DATA AND CREATION OF THE TWA 800 FLIGHT PATH SIMULATION, Crider declared the following;
8. To derive the flight paths as accurately as the data allow, I developed a simulation computer program. This is not an off-the-shelf system. I did not intend it for public use, so it is written in a format that is intuitive to me. Except for limited comments, at the time of the TWA flight 800 investigation, there was no instruction book or on-line guide for using the program. My simulation program combines my knowledge of mathematics and physics with mathematical models that describe the forces acting on the specific aircraft type at issue (proprietary data provided by the aircraft manufacturer) to derive the motion that results from these forces. The mathematical formulations necessary for the simulation program are written in computer code, and are not separate from the remainder of the code. Again, there currently is no standardization for simulation code, so I created the code for the formulas in a way that is intuitive to me. The motion is given as estimates of velocity, position and orientation of the aircraft.
9. My simulation program is written in the C ++ programming language, with parts written in C. I began writing this program prior to my employment with the NTSB. After joining the Board, I have further developed and used the simulation program in accident investigations involving a Boeing 737-200, 737-300, MD-SO and the Airbus 300 for example. There is no hard copy of the simulation program.
Crider's revelation that he had performed the work on his own with essentially no oversight, other than the rather nebulous assertion that he received "the guidance of the management of the NTSB" and that further, "no investigative group was formed for this task" is troubling in the extreme.
It seems incomprehensible that NTSB could in fact offer any guidance at all in reference to a computer program whose mode of operation they had no way of interpreting.
It appears then that the entire basis for the formulation of the CIA/NTSB videos is the concoction of a single individual, operating with essentially no oversight, and utilizing a computer program whose mode of operation is undecipherable except to him.
It only gets worse
If the above isn't bad enough, there's plenty more. So much more in fact, it would be impossible to cover it all in this article.
Perhaps it will suffice to say that despite all of the hoopla and the expenditure of over 100 million dollars over several years, the investigation into the crash of TWA 800 was an abysmal failure. A failure highlighted by political infighting, secrecy, and a seeming general disregard for competent investigatory technique.
For the many years which mark my personal involvement in this case, I have had essentially one goal; a Congressional Investigation into this tragedy. Not a rubber stamp of the "official findings" but a truly thorough and honest look at one of the worst airline disasters in U.S. history.
Perhaps by educating the public at large, and by the work of those like Capt. Ray Lahr, that goal can become a reality.
Author's note: The foregoing article was originally published in 2008 and has been slightly revised and updated.
Copyright 2008-2012 J.E. Fiorentino - All Rights Reserved