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Looking Back at TWA Flight 800

by Steven Novella, Aug 27 2012

On July 17, 1996 TWA flight 800 took off from JFK airport on its way to Paris. Fifteen minutes into its flight, shortly after climbing to about 13,000 feet, the jet exploded in mid air. The nose of the jet fell off into the Atlantic while the rest continued to fly, erratically while on fire and spewing smoke, until 42 seconds later when there was a second explosion. The right wing and the rest of the fuselage separated and descended as two separate streams of burning debris until they hit the surface of the water 7 seconds later. All 230 people aboard lost their lives.

Sixteen years later there are still those who believe that TWA flight 800 was shot down by a missile. This is despite the fact that the largest and most expensive investigation in history into the crash of a commercial airliner came to a very different conclusion. I had the opportunity this past week to speak to six different eyewitnesses of this tragedy, some of whom firmly believe a missile took down the jet, while others are unsure. The incident remains a classic historical case demonstrating the fallibility of perception and eyewitness accounts.

The Official Version of Events

The NTSB, FBI, FAA, CIA, and even NASA were involved in the investigation of the explosion of flight 800. At first everyone assumed it was a bomb. Jets don’t just spontaneously explode in mid-air. Then eyewitness accounts of a missile strike starting coming in and that became a viable theory (and that is also when the CIA became involved). The FBI interviewed 270 different eyewitnesses, mostly people on Long Island, who had an excellent view of the entire episode from the beach or further inland. There were also eyewitnesses on boats, surfing, and even aboard other airplanes.

The CIA did an extensive analysis of this eyewitness evidence, together with the physical evidence (such as the location of the debris field) and radar evidence and put together a reconstruction of what happened. The scenario I described above is what they concluded – the jet exploded, flew erratically for 42 seconds, then exploded again losing the right wing, with the two sections falling for 7 more seconds until they hit the water. The total time of the incident from first explosion was therefore 49 seconds. In the graphic above, taken from the CIA report, the white dots represent the location of the eyewitnesses.

The NTSB managed to recover over 95% of the plane (and all of the bodies) – a herculean task. From the physical evidence it was clear that no missile struck flight 800. There was no impact zone, no pitting in the metal, no petaling like would be caused in a high-energy explosion. The NTSB ultimately concluded that the center wing tank (CWT) exploded due to mechanical failure. The tank was only 5% full at the time, which means the rest of the tank was full of fuel vapor. The plane had been sitting at JFK during the day with the air conditioners running – they sit right behind the CWT and would have heated up the tank. The climb to 13,000 feet would have caused more fuel vapor due to the lower pressure.

The NTSB concluded that the most likely scenario was that a spark in the fuel gauge of the CWT ignited the heated vapor in the tank. It was the perfect storm of conditions leading to the initial explosion. The jet, a Boeing 747 model 131, was 27 years old.

What the Eyewitnesses Saw

With the official reconstruction of events in mind, it is very interesting to read or hear eyewitness accounts of what they saw. The CIA commented on the fact that eyewitness accounts were remarkably consistent in certain details, and I found this also in the few witnesses I spoke to. Many witnesses had their attention drawn to the event by the sound of the initial explosion. Others were looking south over the water (a common event near sunset on the shore) and noticed the stream of smoke and fire.

Most witnesses at first assumed they were looking at a firework or a flare. This culminated in an explosion, with two streams of burning debris falling to the horizon. Thirty-eight of the eyewitnesses specifically reported that they saw this flare rise up vertically from the ocean, while many others report that it was traveling horizontally (they are divided as to which direction it was traveling).

In addition some (but not all – depending on their location) of the witnesses also heard one or both explosions. One witness I spoke to also heard a “zipping” sound right before the explosion, while another described it as a “pffft” sound. The timing of the audible explosions turns out to be a critical bit of evidence (often dismissed by conspiracy theorists). Flight 800 was 9 miles south of Long Island and almost 3 miles up when it exploded. The CIA calculated how long it would have taken for the sound of the explosion to reach the nearest witnesses on land – and that time is 42 seconds. Most witnesses were farther away and would have heard the explosion 50 seconds or longer after it occurred.

And yet, the witnesses who heard the sound report that it occurred either simultaneously with or shortly after the explosion that they saw. This made perfect sense to them at the time. Their brains constructed the incoming sensory information as a rocket ascending into the sky and culminating in an explosion that they both saw and heard.

It is notoriously difficult to judge distance, velocity, size, and also angles of objects and movement in the sky. There are no depth cues – the brain has insufficient evidence to accurately reconstruct what it is seeing, so it does the best it can, making likely assumptions. Unfortunately, we did not evolve with jets flying overhead. We evolved largely concerned with the narrow plain of our horizontal world, where there are usually foreground objects that help us judge relative distance, and we know the size of objects are can therefore judge their distance. This system fails when viewing objects against the sky.

One witness I spoke to had assumed the crash occurred on land, close to where he was. He had no idea he was viewing something happening a dozen miles away.

The laws of physics, however, are remarkably reliable. Witnesses saw a glowing trail of smoke. Many of them report that the trail zig-zagged, then exploded. Of the witnesses I spoke to, they also heard the explosion between 2 and 12 seconds later. Their 16 year-old memories may be a bit off, but this accords with their testimonies given right after the event. Their judgment of time may also be off, but I doubt they confused 50 seconds with 2 seconds.

It is clear, in my opinion, that the witnesses heard the first explosion shortly after they saw the second. The timing works out perfectly. The “flare” (that some people believe was a missile) was therefore flight 800 itself, after the first explosion, while it was flying erratically on fire and spewing smoke.

Some have therefore speculated that the sound they were hearing was the launch of the missile. It is impossible, however, that so many eyewitnesses covering a large distance would have all heard this launch. Some eyewitnesses felt the concussion of the explosion – a rocket launch would not have caused this to witnesses miles away. There are also no shoulder mounted surface to air missiles with the range to reach flight 800 from the shore. A missile launched from the water would have been farther away than the jet itself.

No eyewitness reports seeing a missile hit an intact jet, and then 42 or more seconds later hearing the first explosion.

The fact that 38 of the witnesses saw the “flare” climb vertically was confusing, even to the investigators. This led the CIA to assume that the jet itself flew vertically for a time after it exploded, but this is very unlikely, and that reconstruction was widely criticized as implausible. They later revised their reconstruction to take this criticism into account, give the jet a much gentler angle of ascent after the explosion.

I don’t think the jet had to climb at all to explain why some of the witnesses interpreted what they saw as something climbing vertically. Remember the mystery missile that hundreds of eyewitnesses saw on the West Coast in November of 2010? It turned out to be only the contrail of a jet (the specific jet is a matter of debate, but it seems likely is was UPS902 from Honolulu flying through southern California). The nearly vertical path of the jet was nothing but an optical illusion.


Many people, including some of the witnesses I spoke to, are convinced to this day that a missile struck TWA flight 800. It is clear, however, that no one saw a missile strike that jet. The physics of the situation makes that impossible to square with what the witnesses saw and heard. There are witnesses who saw a rocket (or something like a rocket) climb vertically then explode, with the sound of the explosion coming at or within seconds of the explosion, and the two trails of debris falling to the horizon about 7 seconds later.

They could not have been viewing and hearing a missile strike an intact flight 800. The timing does not work, but it does fit with them viewing the second explosion at about the time they heard the first, and this also fits the subsequent two streams of debris taking about 7 seconds to fall into the Atlantic. The zig-zagging also fits better with a jet that has already exploded and lost its cockpit rather than a surface to air missile.

We therefore know with a high degree of confidence that people can believe they saw a missile when they didn’t. This fits with everything we know about the nature of optical illusions and the difficulties in constructing visual information against the sky. We also have other events, like the LAX “missile,” that demonstrate this optical illusion effect.

Yet some people are left with the unshakable belief that they saw a missile. They “know what they saw” and the word of the government is not enough to shake their confidence in their own senses and memory.

24 Responses to “Looking Back at TWA Flight 800”

  1. TexasSkeptic says:

    Very sad story. RIP

  2. CountryGirl says:

    What did happen?? We don’t know. What we do know is the official story is NOT what happened. There was zero evidence the middle fuel tank spontaneously exploded and the NTSB didn’t believe it either. What happened? Someone at a high level interferred in the investigation and after that it is all fiction. You may remember an experienced investigator and commercial pilot stole/borrowed some of the materials from the inside of the plane near where the unexplained hole was and had it tested and it showed residue from the fuel used in anti-aircraft rockets. Fortunately he was forced to recant his story and shunted off to some prison cell. How many witnesses were strong armed into recanting their testimony??? You say 38 witnesses saw a rocket fly into the plane but my memory was that the number was about 122 people. Perhaps the official number of these witnesses are those who would not succumb to pressure to recant their testimony.

  3. CountryGirl – that is simply not accurate. First, 38 described the “flare” as moving straight up. There were 270 witnesses interviewed. Many saw something like a flare or firework but only 38 described it as moving vertically. The rest gave various other descriptions.

    The residue issue is complex, and there is no definitive answer. However, any such residue would have likely been removed from being in the salt water for even a day or two, which all of the wreckage was, so one theory is that it was introduced as a contaminant as or after the wreckage we being removed.

    What there is zero evidence for is a bomb or missile. The center fuel tank is the best theory as to how the jet could have spontaneously exploded.

    • Carter says:

      The technical analysis of the missile strike reenactments Boeing did is evidence. The government’s reaction when Boeing threatened to introduce the missile theory in court is circumstantial evidence.

    • starskeptic says:

      A “spontaneous” explosion is not the official story.

      • poor word choice – meaning no bomb or missile. The theory is a spark in faulty wiring set off the fuel vapor.

        And Carter – do you have a reference? I’m serious, because my investigations into this issue continues. Thanks.

      • Carter says:

        There aren’t any. Why would there be? Everything interesting falls under NDA’s and attorney-client privilege.

        I can’t get too detailed on this (I’m serious), but some things to keep in mind:

        The media coverage makes it seem as if the “missile card” was merely a ploy dreamed up by Boeing’s attorneys. That’s incorrect.

        The government’s over reaction to the playing of the “missile card” was unexpected and disturbing, and there was involvement by figures in the government who had no official relation to the case.

        Boeing is a defense contractor and has an enormous number of regulatory interactions with various government agencies. It’s a simple matter for the government to ask for a certain outcome in a particular matter in exchange for arranging favorable outcomes in other areas.

      • MadScientist says:

        When something like a “missile theory” comes up I immediately think “shifting the blame” – of course Boeing’s lawyers will come up with such fluff – they don’t want to lose money if/when the NTSB says Boeing made a mistake somewhere. If Boeing is negligent in this case (which I doubt – honest mistakes and oversights can be made which lead to such tragedies), it wouldn’t even be the first time that Boeing attempted a cover-up. Nor do I see any reason for Boeing to play the stooge to some mystery man in government – if anything, government officials frequently play the stooge to Boeing.

        Maybe my recall is just not good; I thought the official cause of the crash was a faulty fuel pump (of course I could be confusing that with another crash).

      • Carter says:


        Boeing’s lawyers didn’t come up with the missile theory (there are a people at Boeing who know a lot about missiles).

        Who said Boeing played “the stooge to some mystery man in government”? None of the people were mysterious, though why they chose to get involved is certainly mysterious for those that believe the official version of events.

  4. kraut says:

    The NTSB conclusion in section 3 are unambiguous.

    “A fuel/air explosion in the center wing fuel tank of TWA flight 800 would have been
    capable of generating sufficient internal pressure to break apart the tank.
    8. The witness observations of a streak of light were not related to a missile, and the
    streak of light reported by most of these witnesses was burning fuel from the accident
    airplane in crippled flight during some portion of the postexplosion preimpact
    breakup sequence. The witnesses’ observations of one or more fireballs were of the
    airplane’s burning wreckage falling toward the ocean.
    9. The TWA flight 800 in-flight breakup was initiated by a fuel/air explosion in the
    center wing fuel tank”

    everything else the usual conspiracy steaming pile of manure – appropriate for a country girl

    • CountryGirl says:

      You are partly correct. Many witnesses were indeed badgered into changing their testimony and agreeing that what they saw could have been burning fuel falling from the sky. That was the MEME the government wanted and the witnesses were either badgered incessently until they would “officially” agree or they were discounted as whackos, take your choice. Interestingly some of the witnessess that saw a missile did not see the airplane because the airplane was high above them flying normally and as of yet unhit. Very difficult under those circumstances to say that what they saw was burning fuel falling from the plane.

      Was the “exploding fuel tank theory” the official cause? No. The cause of flight 800 being blown up midair is still unknown. What actually happened is (unprecedented) the FBI declared the cause was “probably” a air fuel explosion of some kind in the mid fuel tank and the NTSB willingly stayed mute on this. IF they actually knew what happened there would have been the usual and mandatory grounding of all this type aircraft and retrofit of the defective part. This did not happen. Even after a serious “accident” with many deaths no official and mandated “fix” was ever provided.

      I remain very skeptical of the “official” cause of the explosion.

  5. Jim Howard says:

    It’s interesting to compare the wreckage of TWA800 with that of Siberia Airlines Flight 1812.

    Flight 1812 was in fact inadvertently shot down by a Ukrainian SA-5 (aka S200) surface to air missile over the Black Sea on October 4, 2001.

    The wreckage of 1812 looks like it was blasted by a giant shotgun. That’s how SAM’s kill airplanes, with massive blasts of high speed shrapnel.

    The witnesses saw burning fuel being ejected from the ruptured fuel tank.

    TWA 800 wreckage, on the other hand, show NO evidence of even a single shrapnel fragment. Thus it is certain that TWA800 was not hit by a SAM.

    When a surface-to-air or air-to-air missile hits an airplane, the aircraft wreckage will contain significant parts of the missile that killed it.

    • MadScientist says:

      I’d be surprised if they hit the airplane – they’re designed to explode when they’re close enough to do damage. They typically have a timed detonator, barometric trigger, proximity trigger, and they may have a contact trigger as well in case the proximity device failed but in most cases the missile wouldn’t have to actually hit to detonate. At any rate, the deformation from any blast will be from the outside of the aircraft rather than the inside unless there is a secondary explosion – and of course there will be the tell-tale holes from the shrapnel tearing through. With no (shrapnel) holes and no sign of an external explosion, a missile is easily ruled out.

      • Max says:

        I think Stingers are hit-to-kill, and their time-delayed impact fuze would detonate inside the aircraft, but they still have a blast-fragmentation warhead which would leave fragments.

      • Jim Howard says:

        @MadScientist – All but the smallest surface-to-air missiles kill with shrapnel. The target airplane wreckage will be full of pieces of the SAM’s warhead.

        As happened with flight 1812, but not with TWA 800.

  6. CountryGirl says:

    The FBI interviewed 670 eye witnesses right after the incident and prohibited the NTSB from participating. The FBI gave the NTSB summaries of 458 of these witnesses testimonies to the NTSB but withheld 212 for a year and a half. Among the 212 official witness summaries withheld by the FBI were all accounts of a streak of light colliding with an aircraft. The FBI has still not yet made all of the information available to the NTSB.

    In December of 1997, the NTSB scheduled a weeklong public hearing on its Flight 800 investigation. Among the items slated for discussion were the eyewitness reports. Five days before the hearing began, the FBI pressured the NTSB to exclude all discussion of witness accounts and to disallow any eyewitness from testifying.

    Of the 670 witnesses 183 described a streak of light heading towards the aircraft from the earth’s surface. For example, consider the testimony of Air National Guard Captain Chis Baur. Captain Baur stated that a “pyrotechnic device…came from the left and went to the right. And it made the object on the right explode.”
    A typical description from the 183 witnesses that saw a streak of light was: “was facing east when he saw a streak of red orange light come up from the bay or the ocean and head straight up or at a slight one o’clock angle.”

    Rather than openly address eyewitness observations, both the FBI and NTSB on various occasions suppressed the witness evidence:
    1) The FBI withheld the accounts of 212 witnesses from the NTSB for more than one year after the crash. All witness accounts with descriptions of a streak colliding with an aircraft were concealed from the NTSB in this withheld data.
    2) The FBI ostensibly lost the results of a study to determine the origin of an alleged surface-launched object seen before the crash. Those results are officially listed as “unable to locate” by the FBI.
    3) At the first public hearing on the crash, the FBI prevailed upon the NTSB to prohibit any discussion of the witness evidence.
    4) Official witness sketches that purport to show a surface-launched object cause the crash have never been discussed or addressed in any official report or public hearing on the crash.
    5) The witness evidence was withheld from the public until April 2000, almost four years after the crash.
    6) At the final public hearing on the crash in August 2000, the NTSB dramatically under-reported the number of witness accounts that conflicted with their proposed crash scenario.
    The questions raised by these witness accounts redirect critical attention towards the official crash sequence. As it stands now, the official sequence is not flexible enough to include the implications of these accounts. For the official sequence to stand, these accounts must be rejected or discredited. And yet these accounts clearly stand on an equal footing with all other witness accounts in detail, clarity, and level of certainty. They even surpass most other accounts in amount of potentially useful information, since they include descriptions of the earliest portions of the crash sequence up to and including the final moments.
    This review of federal data gathering, analytical procedures, and public dissemination of official findings concerning TWA Flight 800 witness reports located several problem areas. These areas include the concealment of witness evidence, a failed attempt to explain a rising streak of light, and an under-reporting of observations in conflict with official conclusions. This examination has shown that these areas are not insignificant or isolated problems.
    Each problem area alone is of sufficient magnitude to raise credible doubts concerning the validity of the NTSB witness studies. Combined, a pattern of neglect and suppression of witness accounts that refute the official theory becomes visible. The dynamic relationships among these areas prevented the NTSB from obtaining timely possession and control of the witness materials, carrying out a rigorous statistical evaluation of the data, and maintaining standards of accuracy in conveying information about the data to the public.
    In pursuing its study without correcting these problems as they emerged, NTSB officials reduced their ability to reach conclusions solidly grounded to the available data. The perpetuation of deficits within the official investigation has resulted in an incomplete and misleading official report.
    Independent review of the now-available witness materials indicates that, far from being a closed matter, the TWA Flight 800 witness data today carries investigative utility overlooked by the NTSB during its four-and-a-half years of investigation. The independently demonstrated significant number of witness accounts that clearly refute the official aircraft breakup scenario may well point to implications neglected by officials.
    The object that witnesses saw rising from the surface, heading west, and exploding can not be explained by Flight 800 at 13,800 feet, heading east and exploding, as officials contend. This object must be adequately accounted for before any federal agency can claim to know the probable cause for the crash of TWA Flight 800.

  7. CountryGirl says:

    When Flight 800 crashed, boats and ships up and down Long Island’s coast converged on the crash site. But the four closest didn’t react at all.
    Two of these four were due west and within six miles of Flight 800 when it exploded. They were on parallel, east-southeast headings, as Flight 800 became a cascade of flames just off the port side of their bows. But strangely, neither changed course or speed during or after the crash.
    The closest ship to Flight 800 was traveling at an impressive 30 knots, and was tracked heading away from the crash site and land after sunset. The FBI allegedly never identified this ship. It was traveling SSE at 30 knots, only 2.9 nautical miles from Flight 800 when it lost electrical power. The sun had set, but this vessel was speeding out to sea. It continued on its original course for at least sixteen minutes. The NTSB, as the lead agency in charge of determining the cause of the crash, apparently never attempted to determine this or any other surface vessel’s identity.

    • Max says:

      “But the four closest didn’t react at all.”

      I haven’t read the report, but here’s what Skeptoid said about it.
      “Radar data from four different sites also found four unidentified boats within 6nm of Flight 800, all but one of which responded to assist in search and rescue.”

      Are you talking about the same four boats?

      • That episode was a few years ago and I don’t remember all the details, but at the time I did look up what was known about all the boats in the vicinity. Several were yachts, and if you’ve grown up boating as I have, you know that yachts never, NEVER have their radios on. There’s no reason you would. But if you see a plane come down or some other disaster, you’re likely to tune to VHF 16 to see what’s up.

        30 knots is very fast for a power yacht (I don’t endorse that figure since I’m going on memory, that’s just what Country Girl said). If you’re going that fast, you’re up in an enclosed bridge, eyes ahead, with a drink in your hand, and not likely to be aware of whatever plane crashes fall behind you.

      • GoneWithTheWind says:

        That is entirely possible. It is also likely that a boat with that kind of ability and implied size would have radar and other means of being aware of what is around them. This is just one of the unusual circumstances that should have been investigated. But if you look at the video and listen to the witnesses you find a large number of “strange” actions by the FBI. It is also clear that someone at a very high level (lets stop beating around the bush what this means is president Clinton) decided to make sure this incident didn’t make waves in an election year. Once that decision was made there was no going back. It isn’t the crime that does you in it’s the coverup. So once they committed to a coverup no action, no lie, no inaction was off the table. The FBI acted contrary to an investigative organization they acted like organized crime. Not their proudest hour. So nitpicking around the edges about this inconsistency or that misrepresentation of fact misses the point. What happened on that day is still unknown and it was covered up and we deaserve to know what happened and why it was covered up. Our media did a horrible job and willingly became a part of that coverup. That alone should scare the crap out of you.

  8. CountryGirl says:

    Here is a documentary that puts the pieces together.

  9. double-helical says:

    Steven Novella did an excellent job describing why eyewitness testimony can be wildly different from the facts, even if the witnesses are sincere, sober individuals. To add to that, let me remind my fellow skeptics just how lousy our memories are. Remember the study that asked people to write down their accounts within hours of a “flashbulb” event, then asked them to recollect what they were doing years later. A large percentage recounted different stories, and even went so far as to call thier own handwritten accounts forgeries. How soon we forget that we humans, far from having slightly imperfect memories, actually are only mediocre at best at recalling details of events. AND YET, the arguments above swirl around and around about eyewitnesses saw this and eyewitnesses saw that. The physical evidence of the aircraft debris could not have been faked. A conspiracy to make that happen would have a vanishingly small chance of success. The conclusion is that the physical evidence is genuine. If it is genuine, we have to rely on it, and give it the weight it deserves. And anyone, such as my fellow skeptics, who knows how abysmal humans are at accurately assessing what they see, and how mediocre we are at remembering what it was we think we saw, will recognize that the weight of physical evidence is far and away better than eyewitness accounts. What does the physical evidence say? No missile. Internal explosion of heated fumes in a nearly empty fuel tank. Aircraft defect? No. Faulty wiring in a 27-year-old fuel tank? A good bet. Far more plausible than a successful cover-up of a deliberate shoot-down off the coast of one of the most inhabited areas of our country. Come on, folks! Put your skeptical hats on and stop believing in woo!

    • GoneWithTheWind says:

      You are rationalizing. Eye witnesses are indeed prone to errors and poor memory and yet eye witness testimony is considered the holy grail in courts. But none of this was my point. My point was simple; the FBI hid testimony, changed testimony and harrassed witnesses until they changed their testimony. why? Aren’t you even the slightest bit skeptical about their reasons? Do you think they did it in their never ending search for the truth?

      Your statement “What does the physical evidence say? No missile.” Ignores the obvious evidence of a missile that the FBI altered so it was inconclusive and the fact that although 90% of the plane was recovered the missile damage would have been in that 10% that somehow was not recovered. Or maybe you didn’t take the time to watch the documentary.