FACT CHECKING: Business Insider

Alex Davies wrote a review of our film ‘TWA Flight 800’ for ‘Business Insider’.  We respond to his review below.


The New Documentary About TWA Flight 800 Fails To Prove Its Extraordinary Claim That The Plane Was Hit By A Missile

The documentary claiming that TWA Flight 800 was brought down by a missile attack, which airs tonight on Epix, poses interesting questions, but is full of holes that make it hard to take it seriously.

Inaccurate. See below.

Today is the 17th anniversary of the disaster, when a 747 exploded after taking off from JFK Airport, killing all 230 people on board.

The film disputes the National Transportation Safety Board’s finding that fuel tank explosion, caused by an electrical spark, brought down the airplane.

In “TWA Flight 800,” physicist Tom Stalcup, who investigated the crash on his own and conducts many of the interviews, joins six members of the official crash investigation to try and prove that three missiles brought the 747 jet down.

Inaccurate: The documentary does not suggest three missiles downed TWA Flight 800. The documentary does say that forensic evidence and eyewitness accounts are consistent with at least one of three objects going up to the plane being a proximity fused missile.

They make two especially important claims: That eyewitnesses who said they saw a missile hit the plane were silenced, and that radar data from the crash disproves the NTSB’s conclusion.

The fact that eyewitnesses were silenced is noteworthy but the fact that so many eyewitnesses consistently reported seeing objects they described as “flares,” “rockets,” and “missiles” going up to the plane from the surface is even more important.

The radar data is hard evidence. The analysis of the data was based on information provided by the official investigation’s own radar expert.

As they are presented in the film, these claims seem to prove that TWA 800 was attacked, after all. If there’s no cover-up, why wouldn’t witness claims be given more credence? Why isn’t this radar data being considered?

There was a cover-up. In the film, the members of the original official investigation discuss their direct experiences with FBI and NTSB (David Mayer) activities altering and suppressing evidence as well as distorting eyewitness accounts. These are earmarks of a cover-up. The CIA video (created by a team that never interviewed a single eyewitness) discrediting eyewitnesses with an animation that defies the laws of physics (Law of Conservation of Energy) and that the CIA knew was not accurate (confirmed by internal CIA documents obtained during the film’s production) is also part of a cover-up.

Why isn’t the radar data being considered? Because neither the NTSB nor the FBI ever did a ballistics analysis of the radar-recorded explosion that both agencies confirm appears on radar.

But the lack of independent support makes them a whole lot less impressive.

The NTSB and FBI radar experts do in fact independently support this radar-recorded explosion. And the first-hand sources who handled the wreckage who were also the official government investigation’s own experts are in the film discussing the evidence is additional, independent support. If Mr. Davies supports the official investigation, why would he exclude the government’s own investigators as credible experts for assessing the evidence?

The Witnesses

The Epix documentary is opinionated to a fault. It includes interviews with several eyewitnesses of the crash, all of whom describe seeing a streak of light go straight up, toward the 747, just before the explosion.

Inaccurate. The eyewitnesses were not offering opinions when they said they saw an object rise off the surface, head towards Flight 800 and blow it out of the sky. They were recounting what they saw and they were all consistent with one another even though they weren’t all together and didn’t know each other. This is why the FBI concluded within two weeks of the crash that there was a “high probability” that a missile took down the plane.

That sounds a lot like a missile, and some of these witnesses are quite sure that’s what they saw.

But the NTSB final accident report has a solid rebuttal, based on academic studies of memory and witness testimony. Memories change over time and are susceptible to bias. The report says:

Research into human memory and its accuracy has demonstrated that human memory is subject to error and that these errors occur for a variety of reasons. Further, people tend to be unaware of their memory errors and may be overconfident in the accuracy of their memories, and this confidence may increase over time. The film denies the idea that its witnesses are wrong, not with a rebuttal from a psychologist, but with an incredulous question from an off-screen interviewer about the likelihood of a “mass misperception.”

Mr. Davies implies here that an out-of-context academic study on the accuracy of memories cited by the NTSB’s David Mayer who perjured himself at the final NTSB hearing when he distorted eyewitness testimony, is more credible than hundreds of eyewitnesses whose accounts dovetail with each other.

The FBI gathered eyewitness accounts shortly after the disaster so the accounts were fresh. In addition, many of the eyewitnesses who recounted what they saw years later were still consistent with their original FBI 302 interview summary documents. This begs the question: has Mr. Davies reviewed the FBI 302 summaries or spoken to any eyewitnesses?

The attempt to discredit hundreds of consistent eyewitness accounts that were gathered almost immediately after TWA flight 800 exploded in the sky does amount to building a specious case for mass misperception. In any investigation—homicide, theft, drug, accident, etc.—eyewitness accounts can be extremely important as leads to and additional corroboration of hard evidence, which is the case in TWA Flight 800. What the eyewitnesses saw dovetails with what the evidence shows, and no out of context academic study or specious attempts to discredit the eyewitnesses can change this fact.

The Radar Data

The objecting investigators claim that TWA 800 was brought down by three surface-to-air missiles.

Inaccurate. The documentary does not claim that the plane was downed by three missiles.

That’s based on their interpretation of radar data, which they say shows debris moving away from the 747 at Mach 4 speeds, faster than what a fuel tank explosion could generate. Again, the filmmakers neglect to support their theories with independent analysis.

The filmmakers use the government’s own original experts—including the government’s radar expert–to present the evidence—not theories. If Mr. Davies supports the government’s investigation, why wouldn’t he accept the opinions of the experts the government chose to work on the investigation?

As Greg Evans at Bloomberg Businessweek pointed out, “The film offers no dissenting interpretation of his [Stalcup’s] facts, or even outside acknowledgment that his facts are facts.”

Again, the documentary uses the government’s own experts who handled the evidence and the government’s own documentation to present the evidence.

One of the starring investigators, Hank Hughes, argues the attackers must have used proximity fuse missiles, which detonated just before hitting the jet. But the NTSB report shoots down that possibility, based on information from the Naval Air Warfare Center—Weapons Division:

Further, simulations also showed that a missile launch from one of the few sites that could potentially have resulted in a detonation at the proximity and orientation for a fragment to penetrate the tank and ignite the fuel/air vapor would have resulted in numerous fragments impacting the surrounding airplane structure with sufficient force to leave distinctive impact marks. No such impact marks were found on the accident airplane’s wreckage.

The NTSB never considered proximity fused missiles, so how could it “shoot down” that possibility with any information? The “proximity and orientation” Davies quotes actually refers to the self-destruct of a contact fuse missile, which the filmmakers agree didn’t bring down the plane. It appears that Mr. Davies is getting his information from a misleading report by Bloomberg News which we refute here.

The NTSB’s Response

A petition started by Hughes and Stalcup to reopen the investigation is under review by the NTSB. But the Board has not wavered in its confidence. In an email, a spokesperson wrote:

“The TWA Flight 800 investigation lasted four years and remains one of the NTSB’s most detailed investigations. The NTSB’s final report of this investigation includes more than 400 pages of detailed information, and the public docket contains more than 17,000 pages of supporting material. Investigators took great care reviewing, documenting and analyzing facts and data and held a five-day hearing to gather additional facts before determining the probable cause of the accident.”

Impressive statistics, but the NTSB still was never able to produce hard evidence of a spark in the fuel tank causing it to explode. Yet most noteworthy is what is completely absent from the final report: 1) the word “proximity fused” or the consideration of that type of missile; 2) any analysis whatsoever of the radar-recorded explosion that caused the crash; 3) any crash sequence simulation that matches the actual FAA radar tracking; and much more.

The hard evidence presented by the filmmakers makes a solid case for the involvement of at least one proximity fused missile causing the plane’s demise.

Sin Of Omission

“TWA 800” concludes with a lengthy list of NTSB, FBI, and other government officials who denied to be interviewed for the film, including Bill Clinton.

While their views would have been valuable, the filmmakers could — and should — have brought in outside experts to talk about witness memory and radar data. That omission is as damning for the film itself as any of the claims it is based on.

The radar expert brought in by the government who produced the report containing the data Dr. Stalcup used to conduct his ballistics analysis was consulted during the production of the documentary, and he confirmed that the analyzed debris pattern was related to the crash. In his words, it “kicked out to the right” of the flight path. And as we explain in the documentary, this trajectory is consistent with an object many eyewitnesses said approached the jetliner.

The witness memory expert is unnecessary and a specious suggestion. The FBI recorded many eyewitness accounts immediately after the tragedy and many eyewitnesses who recounted what they saw years later were consistent with their earlier accounts. So “memories change over time” can occur, but in so many instances here, this simply was not the case. The filmmakers suggest Mr. Davies review the FBI 302s himself.