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The Downing of TWA Flight 800
By James Sanders
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 James D. Sanders
All rights reserved.
A Flash of Light
As the evening of July 17, 1996, began, Eastenders on Long Island's south fork had no idea that only a few miles away a joint naval task force was assembling for a critical test of a top-secret weapons system. In towns like Westhampton, Mastic Beach, and along the Shinnecock Inlet as midweek parties began or out in the waters just off the south shore as recreational boaters set out into the warm night, they could not have foreseen the light show that would soon light up the skies and announce what would, in only a few hours, turn out to be one of the worst air disasters in American history. The evening of July 17, 1996, a world away from the Town of Southampton's resort beaches, military warning zones, thousands of square miles of ocean located south and southeast of Long Island, began to be activated by the United States Navy. Within minutes, from different locations around the sector, military activity increased as the various units participating in the operation deployed their aircraft and surface vessels. The 106th New York Air National Guard, although not advised it was part of a greater exercise, put a C-130 and HH-60G helicopter in the air. The Coast Guard Cutter Atak patrolled just south of the Long Island Gabreski Air National Guard base, her sailors catching the last few rays of deep orange before the sun finally disappeared for the night.
Over the horizon, to the east, in zone W-105, U.S. Navy Aegis guided missile warships prepared for the final evaluation of a multibillion-dollar upgrade to their software, radar, and Standard IIIA and IV antiaircraft/anti-missile missile. The Aegis radar and target management system was the pride of the U.S. fleet, so powerful that Ticonderoga class guided missile cruiser personnel were said to have bragged that a single ship like the USS Normandy could single-handedly fight a nuclear war with a small country, and win. "Aegis arrogance," they called it, a pride supported by the stubbing Tomahawk cruise missile tubes and the surgically accurate antiaircraft and anti-ship weaponry that bristled from the cruiser's deck. Aegis warships protected the fleet and could fight battles on land, sea, or air, and in just a few short weeks, the USS Normandy herself would steam into the Adriatic to relieve the USS Arleigh Burke Aegis destroyer and take up station to bombard the Bosnian Serb rebels with a barrage of Tomahawks.
But that was still months away. Tonight, the system itself had to be tested as the surface vessels and submarines sailed into position. At the same time, a Navy plane, also with newly upgraded electronic equipment designed to work with Aegis, slowly cruised. The plane was the key to the new top-secret and highly complex radar tracking system that was in its third year of testing. The aircraft's onboard computer hardware, weighing 525 pounds, was the platform for a new software upgrade linked directly to the Aegis warships' radar system. If it all ran like clockwork, the computer link and integrated radar and communications net would make it possible for a defensive envelope to be extended more than thirty miles over the horizon even in the most dangerous of coastal battle theaters, the foulest of weather, and the darkest of night. But would it work?
Zone W-105 was selected for this final pre-certification test because of the complexity of the area. It was as close to a simulated Persian Gulf environment as the Navy could get without leaving U.S. coastal waters. Long Island offered dense ground-clutter, and the constant flow of commercial air traffic out of JFK gave the Navy the "neutral" radar blips it needed to test the discrimination skills of the targeting software. Meanwhile, Navy planes were approaching the exercise area to present "friendly" electronic signatures for Aegis to track and compute into the task force battle array. About 2030 hours one could be seen on FAA radar having a bit too much fun, running up the ass-end of the commercial heavies coming out of JFK Airport. A "hostile" presence would soon appear in the form of a BQM-74E Navy drone missile launched in the vicinity of Shinnecock Bay, east of Riverhead, Long Island.
The drone, the friendlies, the neutrals, the task force surface naval vessels, the National Guard aircraft, and the interlocking radar were all part of a test of the Navy's new Cooperative Engagement Capability or CEC, an integrated radar network designed to be fully compatible with the Army's missile defense system in order to give the battlefield zone closest to the water comprehensive protection from cruise and ballistic missiles. The Army's anti-missile development was controlled by a command called Force 21, with a headquarters at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, just outside of Eatontown near the Jersey Shore. Attached to this Army program was a senior Navy officer named Admiral Edward K. Kristensen whose expertise in computers and integrated data management system arrays made him the perfect candidate for senior level liaison with the Army for this multi-billion-dollar twenty-first-century warfare.
At about the same time as the naval units were heaving into position, the gate agents for TWA's New York to Paris Flight 800 were announcing final boarding. As families said good-bye, fathers hugging their daughters, husbands and wives promising to call one another as soon as the plane landed safely, the TWA cabin crew was checking seating assignments on the computer printout. Out on the tarmac, the baggage handlers were putting the last of the luggage aboard while in the cabin, Captain Steven E. Snyder and his first officer Ralph G. Kevorkian completed their preflight checklist. Earlier that day, this 747 had flown in from Athens and was cleaned, checked, put through maintenance, refueled, and resupplied for the return flight to Europe. The area around the huge 747-100 was almost like a mini city as the ground crew fought against the clock to get this plane airborne on schedule. Even as children at the departure gate pressed their noses against the glass to watch the train of little baggage trucks wind away from the nose landing gear, no one could have known the fate that awaited Flight 800. Not in their most terrifying nightmares could anyone, neither passengers nor crew, have conceived of the engine of destruction that was assembling itself just offshore and the resulting fireball that would consume everyone onboard when the plane's path brought it right through the hot zone. Death was less than a few hours away.
For an entire week before the final test on July 17, an Army unit had been deployed at the Long Island site participating in several training missions that included the launch of several drones. Shortly before 2030 hours on July 17, an all-clear signal was given to the drone's launch platform. No general aviation or commercial aviation traffic was in the area. It was safe. The Army unit fed in the trajectory instructions to the drone's computer and watched as the automatic launch sequence counted off to ignition. Within minutes of the all-clear, the drone was airborne. FAA radar picked up the drones' non-transponder blips as it challenged the Aegis radar system that could be put on low power, lessening its radar signature from a rather large blip to a small blip and frequently none at all on FAA radar. July 17, 1996, however, there was a weather inversion making it possible for FAA radar to see ships over the horizon.
At about the same time as the all clear signal Linda Kabot from Westhampton Beach on Long Island was snapping off party photographs at a Republican fundraising event from an outdoor restaurant deck overlooking Shinnecock Bay. Linda was focusing her camera at the smiling faces of local Republican politicos and friends, not realizing that in the background high overhead in the purple sky, that little streak of light she'd seen would turn out in one of the photos to be an image of the BQM-74E Navy drone, quickly racing to its initial altitude coordinates shortly after its launch, which she'd inadvertently captured while shooting the picture of a smiling friend. Her friend kept on smiling.
In its preprogrammed trajectory, after the Navy drone reached its preset altitude, it then dropped to 30 feet above sea level and accelerated to more than 500 miles per hour as it began a long left turn away from the clutter of Long Island's land mass. The drone settled onto an east-southeast heading toward the Navy Aegis surface task force cruising on station just over the horizon. As the drone shot through the darkness at the speed of an airliner, the passengers aboard Flight 800 were just settling into a routine in the minutes after their late takeoff. You could hear the seatbelts unfastening as the cabin flight attendants began preparations for the long service through the night and into the breaking dawn over Europe, eight hours away.
High overhead at 20,000 feet a Navy P-3 Orion, deployed from Brunswick Naval Air Station, Maine, turned its equipment on as it assisted the billions of dollars in Navy high-tech tracking equipment spread along the shore from Virginia to Long Island, installed to monitor the ongoing development of the Navy's CEC warship defense system. Tonight the P-3 would be part of the invisible eyes of the network, monitoring, along with the land-based equipment, every phase of what the Navy expected to be a perfect shoot-down of the drone missile already on its way into the heart of the Aegis task force.
The Navy had invested a lot of money in the development of CEC, even before the disastrous Exocet missile attack on the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war when American warships were convoying oil tankers up and down the Straits of Hormuz under the hostile Iranian shore batteries. Amidst the flights of commercial airliners from both adversaries, U.S. and allied military aircraft, and hostile aircraft from Iran, it was next to impossible to discriminate between targets and neutrals, friend and foe. This, Saddam Hussein explained, was how the Stark was attacked by his fighter pilots in the first place. It was part of the reason for the deployment of CEC.
Because of the complexity of modern electronic warfare in which the frontlines were obliterated, CEC was designed to be an almost surgical radar tracking, evaluating, and targeting system which would make it possible for the Navy to enter hostile environments like the Arabian Sea, with Iran to the east and Iraq to the west. Confident that CEC could identify and track the commercial traffic in and out of the countries bordering the sea, as well as the friendly military traffic in and out of the countries bordering the sea, as well as the friendly military aircraft in the area, while remaining on the lookout for a cruise missile launch from any direction, the Navy believed it was equipped to discriminate electronically among friend, foe, and background clutter and still fight a battle. That's how thorough the new system was supposed to be—at least that's what the Navy thought as their warships and planes glided into position on the night of July 17, turned their combined radar on, and began sweeping the area for the commencement of this final precertification test. Even the FAA radar tracked the drone this night because of the weather inversion. As it approached an area of the ocean, ship radar, initially seen as small blips, soon ballooned up, presenting a defensive line across the ocean. When the drone seemed to slow, it was either climbing or diving because its speed could not be varied. When another drone approached from a different direction, another defensive line of radar ballooned up until the airborne threat passed. Then the radar powered down, some becoming invisible, while others were just a mere speck.
Deep inside the electronic brain of the Navy P-3, the radar communications equipment in the plane linked to the Aegis-CEC portion of the exercise transmitted signals along a downlink to the vessels' Aegis radar computers which began to decipher images from among the land clutter, friendlies, neutrals, and the hostile BQM-74E Navy drone missile rapidly heading toward the task force. It was as if combined radars and computers suddenly took an electronic snapshot of the entire area and identified friend from foe while eliminating the neutral aircraft. Then, almost instantly, within the radar officer's next heartbeat, the interlocking software of each Aegis-CEC platform acquired the target drone, computed a shot through the thickening fog of multiple "hostile" electronic jammers, plotted its trajectory, and commanded the software to automatically select the platform best positioned to make the shot. At least two submarines were in the area, computers linked into the system, making it possible to track a low flying drone by the vibrations it left on the water.
The subs were closest to the drone so the computer selected one to take the shot. A fairly small antiaircraft missile shot out of the sub's tube. One sub would have launched from its torpedo tube a new experimental type of missile. The other sub had a brand new upgraded system the British were beginning to use in their subs. Launched while submerged, the missile broke the surface of the ocean. The antiaircraft missile climbed high into the evening sky.
Commercial planes rising into the sky from JFK were unwitting participants in this final test of twenty-first-century technology. So was TWA Flight 800 as the 747-100 climbed toward 14,000 feet heading eastbound over the water for Paris. It was about eight miles off the south coast of Long Island over the horizon to the northwest of the military exercise, skirting the warning zone but in the vicinity of the two submarines stationed to simulate littoral, shallow water warfare.
Something went wrong. The new, underwater-launched antiaircraft missile was too experimental, was not a heat seeker. It seemed to have searched for the fattest part of a 747 that had leveled off just under 14,000 feet.
TWA Flight 800 had taken off from Kennedy Airport and had climbed above and to the north of the target drone. The missile streaking toward TWA Flight 800 made a last-second course correction. Witnesses watching this missile said it made a last second turn upward into the wide-body's fuselage at the point where the leading edge of the right wing fastens to the fuselage. An extremely bright light suddenly appeared as the incendiary warhead exploded just prior to entering the 747. This extraordinarily hot blast force traveled upward at a 30-40 degree angle, first into the empty center wing tank, upward into the right side of the plane's business class, upward through the 747's skin. As it blew out the right top of the wide-body, it looked like McDonald's Golden Arches spewing out the top. Seriously injuring but not instantly destroying the aircraft, the 747 momentarily soldiered until a second "backstop" Standard missile arrived too late to save the day. Its warhead exploded in front of, under, and to the left of the crippled aircraft. This force shredded the underside of the 747 underneath the cockpit and first class section, as the 747 flew through the blast, knocking the plane's nose upward, severing it from the remainder of the plane.
After the first missile exited the 747, passengers, seats, galleys, food carts, and suitcases were sucked out of the interior through a hole in the right side, leaving a 4,700 foot trail of debris along the sea bottom during phase one of the three-phase breakup. Along with this debris went the number three engine, ripped away from underneath the right wing, a few feet from the fuselage. Its severed fuel line spewed more than 21,000 pounds of jet—A into the air where it instantly turned into a mist that caught fire—a fire that attracted the attention of many witnesses.
The plane went into a left turn as the right wing lost a 9,000 pound engine and 21,000 gallons of fuel. The force of the second missile warhead explosion caused the forward fuselage to separate a few feet in front of the center wing tank, where the fuselage had already been greatly weakened. This blast propelled row 15, seats 1, 2, and 3, about 6/10 of a mile to the left, while a large piece of the fuselage above the R-2 door sailed 6/10 of a mile to the right. The front end tumbled end over end off to the left as the remaining section of the plane continued on in a steep dive.
The pilotless stump of the 747 rolled to the left until the left wing tip pointed toward the water below. Fire from the center wing tank spread rapidly up the right side of the fuselage and right wing. At about 7,500 feet the inner right wing tank burst. The engines and about 98 percent of the center wing tank came to rest on the ocean floor more than 12,000 feet east of the missile's point of impact, logically eliminating the center wing tank as a suspect source of the initiating event that brought the plane down.
Excerpted from The Downing of TWA Flight 800 by James Sanders. Copyright © 2013 James D. Sanders. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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