It is a testament to the considerable filmmaking skills of Kristina Borjesson that the TWA 800 documentary she produced had me actually paying attention to Thomas Stalcup, believing for some of the 90 minutes I watched the program that he actually had discovered something new.
With great enthusiasm Stalcup and former National Transportation Safety Board investigator Hank Hughes present radar data that they say is the "smoking gun" in their efforts to cast doubt on the official cause of the explosion -- Stalcup in the documentary and Hughes in a petition for reconsideration of the probable cause he sent to the NTSB on June 19.
Granted, the crash of a Boeing 747 bound from New York to Paris was 17 years ago. Deadly Departure, my book on the accident was published in 2000 and several other air disasters or near disasters have captured my attention since then. These are excuses for my slightly positive first impression. After some memory-refreshing interviews and a briefing at the NTSB, I see now that Thomas Stalcup has added nothing new to the argument he has been making for the past decade and a half.
The "smoking gun" turns out to be a well-known and previously examined document, showing a cluster of radar targets in apparent close proximity to the TWA airliner just prior to the explosion. It is proof he says that the blast was high velocity (as in missile) not a low velocity (as in fuel-air) as the safety board concluded.
No radar expert is cited as the source for this opinion. No one at all in fact. In an interview in Virginia on Tuesday Stalcup told me he made the conclusion based on the NTSB report prepared by radar expert Michael O'Roark.
"The radar data shows a high velocity explosion," Stalcup told me. "I based my analysis on Michael O'Roark's report."
As a hired consultant to several agencies looking into the crash, O'Roark analyzed radar data from a number of reporting stations. When contacted by Stalcup to appear in the documentary, O'Roark agreed. They met at a hotel near Dulles Airport.
"He wanted to know about the radar," O'Roark told me. That was fine with O'Roark. He knew the blips Stalcup was referring to. "He's got one little hit that first appears simultaneously with the fragmentation," about a mile and a half off the right side of the airplane.
O'Roark said he told Stalcup, it could be the airplane, it could be a boat or a ship, it could be a false high-speed target. Since a primary radar return doesn't give altitude, there's no way of knowing where in space the object actually is, or as O'Roark said, "Things that appear to be close together could be quite far apart."
O'Roark quibbled with making any conclusion about the speed either. "Specifically I said, you can't tell velocity by the primary return until you get a second return." But by the time the radar swept by four and a half seconds later, there were 700 primary returns. Whatever happened to the plane had already happened.
Curiously, not a frame of this interview appears in the film. Perhaps because O'Roark also told Stalcup he thought the missile theory was nonsense. When I pushed O'Roark to think long and hard, asking "Is there any possible way, even if it is extremely remote, that the radar images you guys talked about could be interpreted to be a high-velocity explosion next to the airplane?" O'Roark said, "Call me in 3 hours, maybe then I'll be drunk enough to think so."
These men differ on the amount of ambiguity that can exist in something as seemingly definitive as radar data.
Who to believe? This is the question for viewers of the documentary and more importantly for people like Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf. Based on media reports alone he has already sent the safety board a letter asking for the investigation to be re-opened.
You have a guy like O'Roark, who has clocked more than half his lifetime in front of a radar scope, who in fact has been reading radar returns since before computers (Yep, he's that old!). You have a guy like metallurgist Jim Wildey, with nearly 38-years of experience examining how materials fail in transportation disasters saying there is no evidence of "pitting, cratering, gas washing or petaling of the metal. No high velocity penetrations into the tank. All of those things are present when you have high explosives detonating near metal."
photo courtesy NTSB
You have a guy like Bob Swaim who has eyeballed so much of the wire from the accident airplane he could run a line of it the length of my home state of Connecticut with wire left over. His precision led him to admit during the TWA 800 final hearing that he did not have the exact section of wire that triggered the blast. In a remarkable overstatement and an under simplification, Stalcup concludes there is "no evidence" that wiring triggered the blast.
I really don't want to write about these conspiracy theory guys anymore. I don't understand their peculiar view that it is them versus the world and the rest of us are blind stooges to some vast all-knowing government.
Still, I can't stop wondering, "What is it like to be Thomas Stalcup?", to think having PhD and small band of loyal acolytes makes one's work superior to the investigators mentioned above, superior to the thousands of others -- many with their own PhDs from dozens of academic, commercial and research organizations that provided their expertise during the four year probe?
Viewers susceptible to the manipulation of the movies may find the phenomenally hubristic Stalcup & company credible. If wiser and cooler heads don't prevail, Borjesson's film may actually succeed in confirming Dr. Smarty-pants' inflated view of his own brilliance by convincing the NTSB to needlessly reopen its investigation.