TWA Flight 800
The Impossible Zoom Climb

Letter to RUPA

September 21, 2003

Eighteen years into retirement, and I am still very much involved in aviation, although not in a way that I ever dreamed of. I am suing the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for its calculations of the hypothetical zoom-climb of TWA800 after it exploded off Long Island on July 17, 1996. Thousands witnessed the explosion and hundreds reported a missile prior to the explosion. But a missile shoot-down would have ruined the Olympics which were about to open and would have damaged the presidential election campaigns just commencing. The FBI shoved the NTSB aside. The FBI conducted the witness interviews and took control of the evidence and the laboratory testing. The FBI spokesman, James Kallstrom, immediately suppressed talk about a missile and the NTSB spokesman, Robert Francis, passively went along.

This suppression of the obvious prompted a parallel investigation by aroused citizens. James Sanders wrote a book, The Downing of TWA800, for which he and his wife were severely punished by the government. Commander William Donaldson did a fantastic amount of research and formed ARAP (Association of Retired Aviation Professionals). ARAP has several high ranking members including Admiral Thomas Moorer, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. ARAP requested that Congress conduct its own investigation ( Dr. Tom Stalcup, a physicist, formed FIRO (Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization). FIRO petitioned the NTSB to reopen the investigation ( My compatriot, Captain Richard Russell, received a FAA radar tape showing a missile approaching TWA800 (Dick and I both dedicated a major portion of our careers to ALPA safety work for which we each received the ALPA Safety Award). Seeing that tape drew me into this investigation.

Months later, the FBI did release some of the witness reports, but the identities had been redacted which prevented verification. Fortunately, many of the witnesses had already spoken to the press so their stories and identities were known. Somehow, these witnesses had to be discredited. During the 17 months leading up to the first public hearing, the CIA was called in. It was the CIA that dreamed up the zoom-climb. This is quoted from the CIA briefing of the NTSB on April 30, 1999:

CIA ANALYST #1: The conclusion that the eyewitnesses were only seeing the burning aircraft was made at 10:00 p.m. at night on the 30th of December 1996.

Mr. Walters (ALPA representative): Was it really?

CIA ANALYST #1: Yes, as I was sitting behind the computer. It's -- up until then, what we're doing is trying to interpret these reports the way you are now. If it's a streak, where is the streak originating from? What external source could there be for the streak? There was a realization, having all the data laid out, that you can explain what the eyewitnesses are seeing with only the burning aircraft.

The subsequent CIA zoom-climb video animation was prepared in coordination with the FBI using data and conclusions provided by the NTSB. It portrayed the nose and cockpit being blown off of TWA800 by a fuel explosion of unknown origin. The CIA claimed that not a single eyewitness saw this initial explosion because the sound had not yet reached them (a ridiculous claim since several airborne eyewitnesses saw the initial explosion where sound was not a factor). Then, even though the sound still had not reached the ground witnesses, the CIA claimed that they looked up and saw TWA800 trailing flames in a zoom-climb from 13,800 feet to 17,000 feet. At the peak of the zoom-climb, there was a hypothetical second fuel explosion. Supposedly, this zoom-climb and second explosion is what the witnesses mistook as a missile, even though the witnesses saw the missile rising from the surface, not a point two and a half miles in the sky. One month before the first public hearing, James Kallstrom showed this CIA video on national TV, and he announced that the FBI was withdrawing from the investigation because it could find no evidence of criminality. The aviation community laughed. Still, the NTSB stuck with the story and hastily prepared its own modified versions of the CIA video which it showed at the first public hearing on December 8-12, 1997. Would you believe that not a single eyewitness was allowed to testify at either of the two NTSB public hearings, even after a group of these eyewitnesses took out a full page ad in the Washington Times asking to be heard? Unprecedented.

I don't believe the zoom-climb ever happened. Boeing provided before-and-after data to the NTSB, and it was published in the accident report. Eighty thousand pounds of nose and cockpit were blown off. This shifted the center-of-gravity far aft and generated about 6,000,000 ft-lbs of nose-up torque. The aircraft immediately pitched up and stalled. The wing probably failed right then since its center box structure had been blown apart. But using Boeing's data, I calculated that even if the wing had held together, the most it could have climbed is a few hundred feet, not the 3,200 feet claimed by the CIA. That is why I want the data and calculations that were used to produce the CIA and NTSB videos. It is against all of the principles of accident investigation to base a conclusion, such as the zoom-climb, on secret evidence, data, and calculations.

Dick Russell and I went to the second NTSB hearing. No questions were allowed from the floor. During the coffee break, we tried to question Dennis Crider, NTSB author of the zoom-climb. Dr. Bernard Loeb, NTSB Director, intervened and cut off any answers. So I wrote to Jim Hall, Chairman of the NTSB. We exchanged several letters, but still no answers. This led to my filing Freedom of Information Act requests with the CIA and NTSB. The CIA responded that it had used data and conclusions provided by the NTSB. The NTSB responded that it couldn't release the information because it was proprietary to Boeing. But Boeing had previously issued a press release saying in part, "While we provided basic aerodynamic information to assist in the CIA's analysis of the airplanes performance, we are not aware of the data that was used to develop the video". My appeal of the NTSB decision was refused, so my only recourse was a lawsuit.

Normally, the NTSB would have formed a group to study the trajectory of TWA800. Not this time. This is a quote from ALPA's official statement ( "Furthermore, although ALPA does not doubt the technical capability of the NTSB, we are concerned that this analysis was essentially accomplished by only one individual at the Board, with little or no party input or participation." The NTSB's refusal to release the zoom-climb information suggests that the zoom-climb was a fabrication to void eyewitness reports such as the following. Major Fred 'Fritz' Meyer, National Guard helicopter pilot, saw a missile arc across the sky followed by two or three bright ordinance explosions and then the huge fuel explosion. All of the debris fell downwards out of the fireball. Master Chief Petty Officer Dwight Brumley was aboard US Air 217 which was overhead of TWA800. He saw the flare rise and pitch over followed by the explosion and the downward descent of the flaming debris. Furthermore, the ground witnesses used in the CIA video flatly reject the CIA's interpretation of their testimony.

TWA 800 was climbing to 15,000 feet eastbound and Eastwind 507 was descending to 16,000 feet westbound. They would have cleared each other by a thousand feet. Captain McClaine had been watching the lights of TWA800 for several minutes. He reached up to turn on his own landing lights to signal that he had TWA800 in sight. At that moment, TWA800 exploded and fell to the water (full McClaine interview is at ). Captain McClaine had been watching the lights of TWA800 right up to the moment of the explosion. Therefore, TWA800 was still intact and the electrical system was still operating so there couldn't have been a zoom-climb prior to the explosion. Here are three pertinent radio transmissions from the Boston ATC transcript:

0032:01 [Eastwind Airlines 507] ah we just saw an explosion up ahead of us here *(somewhere's about) about sixteen thousand feet or something like that it just went down – in the water

0032:10 [Allitalia 609} alitalia six oh nine confirms just ahead of us

0032:25 [Virgin Atlantic 009] Boston virgin zero zero nine I can confirm that out of my nine ah three my nine o'clock position it looked like an explosion out there about five miles away six miles away.

Well, there it is. Three airline crews witnessed and confirmed that TWA800 exploded and "just went down". If there had been a zoom-climb after the explosion, these crews most certainly would have seen it. Therefore, there was no zoom-climb. Since there was no zoom-climb, that probably means that the rising bright streak was a missile.

The wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly, but I finally have a hearing set for 10:00 a.m. on December 15, 2003, before the Honorable Judge A. Howard Matz, Courtroom 14, United States District Court, 312 North Spring Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. I would welcome some friendly faces there, but check with me before you make the trip (these schedules often change). (310) 459 2232.

The odds of an individual winning against the NTSB, the FBI, and the CIA are not good, but I am just dumb enough to try.

Ray Lahr