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Missile Fence

Shoulder-launched Missile Threat Addressed, Seriously this Time


A shoulder-lauched missile (MANPAD) was fired at a US military jet in Saudi Arabia in May 2002, and two more were fired at an Israeli charter flight in Kenya six months later. US officials, who believe the Al Quaeda terrorists were involved in both attacks, are developing a plan to deal with future threats to commercial aircrafts from MANPADS. According to the Washington Post, "the highest echelons of the U.S. government are focused on the threat."

Official concern over commercial aircraft vulnerabilities to MANPADS has heightened recently, but it is not new. During the probe into the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800, federal investigators considered a missile scenario and conducted three live-fire MANPAD launches. Descriptions of the launch by observers were compared with the accounts of eyewitnesses to the Flight 800 crash.

The test observers "easily detected" all three missiles. And their descriptions of the launches were similar to the Flight 800 witness accounts.

NTSB Missile-test Witness CDH: said a "small light came from behind trees, traveled up into sky...after short period of time saw flash."[available in NTSB reading room, Washington, D.C.]*

Flight 800 Witness 129: "he noticed out of his peripheral vision what he thought was a flare to the southeast. At first it appeared to him at eye level and continued to rise upward from that point, at a fast rate of speed...then saw a small flash or explosion..."

NTSB Missile-test Witness JDS: "yellow light or plume climbing 60 degree angle at high speed and then orange yellow detonation."[available in NTSB reading room, Washington, D.C.]*

Flight 800 Witness 73: saw a "a 'red streak' moving up from the ground toward the aircraft at an approximately a 45 degree angle"

Although the results of the NTSB MANPAD tests seem to support the notion that Flight 800 witnesses saw a missile, the NTSB came to a different conclusion. What witnesses saw, according to the NTSB, was the plane itself, in various stages of crippled flight. And the witnesses who said the streak rose off the surface and collided with Flight 800 probably incorporated "inaccurate information into their memories," according to NTSB Witness Group Chairman Dr. David Mayer.

But did Witness 73 incorporate "a 'red streak' moving up from the ground toward the aircraft at an approximately a 45 degree angle" into her memory just before seeing it hit Flight 800? And if so, did she also incorporate "the front of the aircraft separate from the back" after the streak collided with Flight 800? The latter is not likely, since this event was unknown at the time of her interview, and later confirmed during salvage operations, and shown in official animations.

Officially, an explosion of unknown origin caused the front of the aircraft to separate, causing a weight imbalance and a rapid pitch up of the aircraft. This pitch up and subsequent climb was the rising streak witnesses saw, according to officials.

Witness 73, therefore, had to have done more than simply incorporate inaccurate information into her memory. She must have reversed the order of events (rising streak before front separation) and confused the surface with Flight 800's altitude of 13,800 feet (2.6 miles) for the NTSB's conclusion to hold.

The dismissal of Witness 73's testimony was not an isolated incident. Many times during the NTSB's eyewitness presentation at their final August 2000 hearing on the crash, Witness Group Chairman Dr. Mayer misrepresented the eyewitness evidence. For more on the NTSB's handling of the Flight 800 eyewitness evidence, see:

Officials concerned with the threats imposed by shoulder-fired missiles should take another look into the crash of TWA Flight 800. It may contain details overlooked by the NTSB--an agency ill-equipped to recognize missile engagements. FIRO's July 2002 petition to the NTSB may be a valuable resource in this endeavor.


* Independent researcher Ian Goddard obtained the quotations from the NTSB's missile visibility test and maintains a webpage with these and other quotations.

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