No other air crash has engendered such a volume of conspiracy theorizing—books, articles, and Internet blogs. A cover-up on the sheer scale suggested would inevitably have, over twenty years, resulted in leaks via whistle-blowers. We therefore include the incident in this chapter rather than classing it as a mystery.
TWA Flight 800, July 17, 1996
The Boeing 747 for Trans World Airlines Flight TWA-800 to Paris had arrived at New York’s JFK International Airport from Athens at 16:31 on July 17, 1996. After cleaning and servicing, it was due to depart for the French capital at 19:00, but because of a delay, caused mainly by a search for a missing item of luggage, it did not depart until 20:03.
The air conditioners were not needed when cleaners and mechanics started servicing the aircraft, but the extra hour’s wait with passengers on board at the end and the hot conditions meant they were working hard for about two and a half hours prior to departure and pumping out a great amount of heat. The fuel in the center wing fuel tank would normally have absorbed some of this heat, but as that was virtually empty, since relatively little fuel was required for the short hop across the Atlantic to Paris, the temperature of that tank would have risen significantly.
At 20:18 the aircraft was cleared for takeoff. The climb-out from JFK over the sea proceeded as usual. Then, passing under the control of the Boston Air Route Control Center, it received various instructions regarding its flight level. Up until then the only thing of note was the captain saying:
Look at that crazy fuel flow indicator there on number four . . . See that?
One minute later Boston Center told them to climb from Flight Level 130 to Flight Level 150. As they were complying, there was a loud sound, after which the CVR stopped working (20:31:12).
The aircraft had broken up, with the pieces falling into the sea.
With many aircraft in the general area, Boston Center received several reports from pilots about witnessing an explosion, with the most detailed being that of the captain of an Eastwind Airlines Boeing 737:
Saw an explosion out here . . . Ahead of us here . . . About 16,000 feet [4,900 meters] or something like that. It just went down into the water.
The debris had fallen into the sea in a busy area a few miles off the coast, and it was only a matter of minutes before people in all sorts of craft, both military and civilian, were on the scene. As feared, there were no survivors, making the death toll 230.
There was much suspicion that the aircraft had been blown up by a terrorist bomb or shot down by a US missile, or even some secret ray gun under test. Perhaps no other air crash has received the attention this one has, especially as regards conspiracy theories. A respected CIA agent (now deceased) told someone the author knows personally that on reviewing the TWA 800 radar tracks, he right away thought it was distinctly possible that it had been shot down by a US missile. Nothing sinister in this, he would have thought, as accidents do happen.