Why the TWA Flight 800 Conspiracy Theorists Are Wrong

Updated from June 19 with NTSB preliminary response to petition for reconsideration.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- One of the great mysteries in commercial aviation is why some people continue to question the cause of the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800.

The people believe that the flight was brought down by a missile, although the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated and discarded that theory. They believe a conspiracy prevents the real cause from being revealed, although few offer any motive for such a conspiracy. On Wednesday, at a media conference, several of them announced that they have filed a petition requesting the NTSB to reopen the investigation and that their case will be fully explained in a video to be released on July 17, the anniversary of the crash.

TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the ocean off Long Island on July 17, 1996, 12 minutes after taking off from New York's Kennedy Airport, killing all 230 people on board. The NTSB investigated for four years before issuing a 2000 report attributing the crash to an explosion of flammable fuel vapors in the center fuel tank, apparently triggered by a spark from a short-circuit in the wiring.

"The in-flight breakup of TWA flight 800 was not initiated by a bomb or a missile strike," the board concluded in its report. "The source of ignition energy for the explosion could not be determined with certainty, but, of the sources evaluated by the investigation, the most likely was a short circuit outside of the center wing tank that allowed excessive voltage to enter it through electrical wiring associated with the fuel quantity indication system."

The crash didn't help floundering TWA. In 2000, TWA was acquired by American ( AAMRQ.PK), in what was perhaps the worst airline acquisition deal ever, given the combination of its high price, minimal return and terrible timing. The deal weakened American and contributed to its eventual bankruptcy, which led to its pending acquisition by US Airways ( LCC).

The NTSB carefully considered whether a missile or other weapon might have brought down Flight 800. It could find no reason to believe that occurred. Many parts of our government don't function particularly well, but the NTSB is exceptional for its impartiality, its transparency, and primarily for its extraordinary success in reducing the likelihood of commercial aviation fatalities. That success seems to result largely from its healthy process.

John Goglia served two terms, from 1995 to 2004, on the NTSB's five- member board. At first, Goglia said, he thought about what would happen if the crash were found to have resulted from some sort of equipment failure. "I knew it could be the demise of TWA," Goglia said. "I wanted to be sure the report was accurate and I was hoping to be able to prove that it was not something under TWA's control. But one by one, we eliminated all of the other possibilities (besides a center wing tank short circuit). That's one of the reasons why it took so long. We didn't discount anything."

In its investigation, the NTSB sought help from the U.S. Navy research station at China Lake, Calif. "We went to the missile experts at China Lake and asked them to explore any possibility as to what would it look like if a missile hit the plane or blew up outside the plane," said Peter Goelz, the NTSB's managing director from 1995 to 2001. "They set off missiles near an airplane skin, then examined the airplane skin, and then we examined every hole we had in the plane. There was nothing that looked similar."

According to the NTSB report, "No area of structure in the reconstructed portion of the airplane contained any unexplained holes large enough to represent the entry point of a missile (and), the victims' remains showed no evidence of injuries that could have been caused by high-energy explosives, nor was there any damage to the airplane seats and other interior components consistent with a high-energy explosion."

The doubters include Hank Hughes, a former senior accident investigator for the NTSB. who laid out the matrix for the reconstruction of the aircraft interior in one of four hangars devoted to reconstructing sections of the aircraft. Previously, Hughes worked directly for Goglia. The two men do not criticize one another. But Hughes believes the investigation was flawed.

In an interview, Hughes said the center fuel tank contained only about an inch of fuel when the explosion occurred, and "no system in the plane could have produced enough heat in the wires for that pump to get to a flash point." So what caused the explosion? The documentary film claims that three missiles exploded in the immediate vicinity of the aircraft.

Hughes spent 42 years as an investigator for the army, the Fairfax County, Va., police department and the NTSB, where he spent 26 years. In the case of the Flight 800 investigation, Hughes saw it up close. It was not pretty. Roughly two dozen agencies were involved, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the CIA, the FBI and the NTSB.

Some FBI agents, it appears, were heavy-handed. In one instance, Hughes said, "The FBI would not allow the NTSB, which had primary jurisdiction, to handle evidence. I convinced them 'it's an airplane; we can put it together for you.'" In another instance, Hughes said, some of his evidence disappeared. It seems clear that being part of the tangled, conflict-laden investigatory process gave Hughes cause to doubt the results.

What was the NTSB's motive to report false results? Hughes said, "I'm not getting into motive, but there were serious mistakes. The case needs to be reopened to determine what happened. We have 230 people who died and we owe it to them to get it right." During Wednesday's news conference, all of the participants declined to speculate on motive.

"I like to do my job, and this is the one case in my career that I wasn't allowed to finish," Hughes said. When I asked him who killed John Kennedy, he named Lee Harvey Oswald, which I believe is the right answer, the one doubted by conspiracy theorists who have "investigated" that incident. "I'm not a conspiracy theorist," Hughes said.

The NTSB said it received the petition for reconsideration on Wednesday. "As required by NTSB regulation, a petition for reconsideration of Board findings or a probable cause determination must be based on the discovery of new evidence or on a showing that the Board's findings are erroneous," the agency said, in a prepared statement. "The NTSB will review the details of the petition to determine if it meets the requirements set forth in the regulation.

"The TWA Flight 800 investigation lasted four years and remains one of the NTSB's most detailed investigations," the NTSB added. "Investigators took great care reviewing, documenting and analyzing facts and data and the NTSB held a five-day hearing to gather additional facts before determining the probable cause of the accident during a two-day Board meeting. The NTSB's final report of this investigation includes more than 400 pages of detailed information (while) the NTSB's docket, which has been available to the public since the late-1990s contains more than 17,000 pages of supporting material."

In 2003, the agency received a petition regarding Flight 800 from physicist Tom Stalcup, co-producer of the documentary, and a participant in the media conference on Wednesday. The petition "was reviewed and denied," said NTSB spokeswoman Kelly Nantel.

The documentary film relies heavily on recollections of eyewitnesses who believe they saw a missile launched before the crash occurred. Their beliefs seem sincere; however, in general in accident investigations, the veracity of eye-witness accounts is discounted. It is also important to remember that immediately after the crash, speculation focused on the possibility of a bomb on the aircraft. Then it shifted to the possibility of a missile. This was the prevailing wisdom as the investigation began. Any move away from it could be viewed as a cover-up, especially given the agency infighting.

Moreover, the Internet was in its infancy then. The crash became "one of the first Internet conspiracy events," Goelz said. Today, one site proclaims that the Clintons were involved in the cover-up, motivated by concern that a terrorist attack on a commercial aircraft would have dimmed Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election prospects.

Flight 800 conspiracy theorists have offered various scenarios over time. "Originally, they believed that the U.S. Navy was conducting live fire exercises off the Hamptons during one of the busiest flight times of the day," Goelz said. "When that theory was laughed off the stage, they shifted to a dummy missile that pierced the cabin of the plane, left missile fuel residue across the seats and then exited the plane. That was completely preposterous. Then it became Al-Qaeda or somebody like that shooting missiles at the plane."

The theorists "don't just doubt the NTSB; they doubt government and they cherry-pick facts," Goelz said. "There is an innate desire in the human brain to try and make sense of stuff, to connect the dots when there is no connection. To have a conspiracy to cover up a criminal act of this magnitude would have taken hundreds and hundreds of people agreeing to keep our mouths shut. On what planet does that happen?"

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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