Commander Donaldson Wins Converts to His Flight 800 Missile Theory

The Army and Navy Club on Farragut Square in Washington, D.C., is the sort of place I would have spat on or screamed myself hoarse in front of back when I was marching in the George McGovern battalion, but on July 20 the radicals were meeting inside, and I satisfied myself with flouting the coat-and-tie dress code as I made my way past the oil of Eisenhower to the upstairs ballroom.

The hall was swarming with old brass. Two admirals, a brigadier general, retired captains and majors. Hard to tell some of these upright old coots from the paintings on the wall! Then a bull-like man in his 50’s, wearing a rustic-looking blue suit, bright red suspenders and a tie with a fighter plane pin, grabbed the podium with big rough hands.

“This will be a military-style briefing. I would appreciate during the formal part of this that if you have questions jot them down,” Bill Donaldson said, and then spoke for almost three hours in a surprisingly musical voice.

Commander Donaldson is not someone you want to tangle with. As an attack pilot, he flew 86 combat missions over Vietnam and Laos. Later he conducted numerous crash investigations before retiring to an apple farm on the Chesapeake Bay. Then 15 months ago, he read statements by National Transportation Safety Board chairman James E. Hall that he felt misrepresented the properties of jet fuel on Trans World Airlines Flight 800 and so he walked away from his trees in the belief that his oath to defend the Constitution required him to do so. Soon he had rigged a crab pot with fuel and a thermometer and kept upping the temperature in an effort to blow it up in his backyard.

The aggressive aviator has become the leading proponent of the contention that a large antiaircraft missile brought the plane down on July 17, 1996, and he has created his own investigative committee to prove it. Apart from the cheap plastic model of the plane Mr. Donaldson holds up with a snapping turtle claw glued to the tail to indicate the position of a telltale piece of shrapnel, his presentation seems quasi-official. Indeed, it includes Government photographs and diagrams that have been leaked to him by dissidents inside the investigation and testimony from the former T.W.A. pilot who was engineer on the plane on its last successful flight, and says the Government has misrepresented the amount of fuel he left in the center tank.

When Mr. Donaldson had finished in Washington, Vernon L. Grose, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board under the Reagan Administration, rose in the audience. “I want to say, this is eye-opening to me.” During hundreds of press interviews, Mr. Grose has supported the N.T.S.B. position that the plane came apart after an accidental explosion of the center wing tank. But the “validity” of Mr. Donaldson’s evidence requires that the investigation be reopened.

Leaving the hall later, Mr. Grose said it is possible that the N.T.S.B. has been politicized, he saw it happen once before. Therefore he finds plausible Mr. Donaldson’s assertion that there has been a coverup in the case, which the commander says grew out of the fact that the plane exploded days before the Olympics were to begin in Atlanta and three months before the Presidential election.

The most striking evidence in Mr. Donaldson’s case is the flight data recorder analysis and the eyewitnesses he summons.

When the N.T.S.B. released the flight data recorder information late last year in a mountain of papers, it drew a line through the penultimate line, at 8:31 and 12 seconds. Mr. Donaldson read the line, anyway, and called it a smoking cannon in the case. Subsequently, the N.T.S.B. published the data on-line, and-amazingly-simply removed this line.

Mr. Donaldson makes a hugely compelling point about the black-box data: “We spend millions of dollars on this system, and we do it for one reason, to capture these last lines.”

So what does the “black box” say? Assisted by a soft-spoken retired T.W.A. pilot and crash investigator named Howard T. Mann, Mr. Donaldson says that the last lines show that T.W.A. Flight 800 was moving along fine when a massive pressure wave like a locomotive in the sky struck it and virtually flipped it. This is just the sort of wave that is created by a proximity missile, which is designed to fly alongside its target and detonate a warhead whose shock waves whiplash the target.

At 8:31 and 12 seconds, the data go crazy. The altimeter reading drops, over one second, from 13,772 feet to 10,127 feet. The plane could not actually have fallen so fast, of course. Mr. Donaldson says that the altimeter is a diaphragm sensitive to air pressure, and thus registered a blast. A center wing tank explosion of the sort the N.T.S.B. has said crippled the flight is, by contrast, a low-pressure event. By Mr. Donaldson’s calculations, such an explosion would have made the altimeter drop 13 feet.

Also according to the data, the plane pitched upward, from 3.6 to 8.3 degrees, switched from an easterly direction to nearly south (82 to 163 degrees), and snap-rolled on its right wing (0 to 144 degrees)-all within one second. These numbers are indications of a tremendous blast, Mr. Donaldson says 60 G’s. In an instant, it displaced the typical passenger 17 feet to the right and 12 feet up. He says this conclusion is borne out by statements the Suffolk County medical examiner made to him and a congressional investigator: The cause of death for almost all 230 aboard was snapped necks. (The examiner, Dr. Charles V. Wetli, declined to comment.)

The Government has said it threw out the black-box numbers because in a close technical reading, they proved to be junk.

“What we’ve crossed out is information that is not relevant to T.W.A. 800,” said Paul Schlamm, an N.T.S.B. spokesman. “Some of it is related to an earlier flight. But the whole thing has to be very carefully synchronized. It requires some very specific skills and experience.”

But Howard Mann said he possesses that expertise. “If you work on an accident investigation, you don’t try to make strange things normal,” he said. “The first thing you look at is what’s out of line. I don’t understand why the N.T.S.B. didn’t look at those figures and say, We really need to figure out what happened here.”

Just days before the Washington press conference, Mr. Donaldson drew a missile of his own. Representative James Traficant Jr., Democrat of Ohio, released a report supporting the N.T.S.B. that said, “I am greatly disturbed by the vast number of conspiracy theories that continue to proliferate on the Internet and other media.”

Aide Paul Marcone, who prepared the report, told me: “I went in as a skeptic. I was trying desperately to punch holes in their [the N.T.S.B.’s] breakup scenario.”

But after hours with N.T.S.B. investigators, he accepted their explanation that the flight data were inaccurate. In the end for Mr. Marcone (and the same is true of other laymen), it was a matter of faith in someone else’s technical expertise: the Government’s. “If these folks were lying, then hundreds of people would have to be involved in a cover-up,” he said.

Mr. Marcone worked closely with Mr. Donaldson. Now he assails him. He says Mr. Donaldson’s theory has changed, from one missile to two; that he has damaged his credibility by taking support from Accuracy In Media, a conservative group; and that he is too belligerent, an opinion shared by former N.T.S.B. member Mr. Grose, who called Mr. Donaldson’s style, which includes regular interpolations of “BS”-too “inflammatory” for a crash investigator.

Mr. Donaldson offers no excuses.

“I’m an attack pilot, that’s the way I grew up. My first letter to Jim Hall I asked him to resign. I still think he should resign.” Did his story change? “Any crash investigator who doesn’t change his story is a fool because it would mean that he knows what happened at the start. An investigation is a stream of information that eventually gets collated into the most probable scenario.” And as for AIM: “That’s a pretty good mantra for the Washington press corps, isn’t it. Am I sorry that I hooked up with AIM? The answer is No. [AIM chairman] Reed Irvine is like a bulldog. You couldn’t ask for better support.”

I believe Mr. Donaldson over the N.T.S.B. in large part because, as I reported after interviews in Center Moriches, L.I., last year, there were hundreds of eyewitnesses to the crash, yet the Government has simply drawn a line through their views, saying they’re junk.

At the session in Washington, Mr. Donaldson was joined by the chairman of an engineering firm who was sailing his boat on the ocean a few miles from where the plane went down and saw something like “a tracer bullet” rise from the sea. Also there was Fritz Meyer, a former Navy flier in Vietnam who was initially one of the Government’s star witnesses in the crash. As the pilot of an Air National Guard helicopter, he saw the explosion of T.W.A. 800 from the air and was the first on the scene, tilting his craft so that the rotors would stir the bodies in the sea below and he could determine whether there were any survivors. Mr. Meyer says he flew in combat enough to know what initiated the explosion: a burst of military “ordnance” that turned the plane into a fireball.

But the N.T.S.B. hearings on the crash last year specifically excluded these eyewitnesses. When the Government fed the media a C.I.A. animation of the plane’s breakup, which showed T.W.A. 800 climbing several thousand feet after it was hit-a climb that was said to explain the reports of something rising like a Roman candle or an alert flare-no one reported that the agency prepared the cartoon without talking to any eyewitnesses. The witnesses I talked to scoffed at that video.

“Personally, it was an insult to me,” Richard Goss, a cabinetmaker who was on the beach in Westhampton that night, said at the Army and Navy Club. “It was very disheartening to be shown and told about something that you’ve seen, and told that you didn’t see it. And then to have it animated-“

The most thorough reporting of these eyewitnesses has taken place recently in Dan’s Papers , a weekly giveaway published in Bridgehampton that didn’t have enough money to send its reporter to Washington. Witnesses call reporter Jerry Cimisi to thank him for getting the story out.

“They say, people treat us like we’re crazy, so you don’t want to get involved,” Mr. Cimisi said.

Who’s made them feel crazy? Why, the mainstream press, which has bought the Government line without challenge. The main dissenting voices have been The Press-Enterprise (of Riverside, Calif.) and the Village Voice (in a fine cover story of July 15 by Robert Davey).

The indifference to charges as serious and well substantiated as Mr. Donaldson’s is in my view Exhibit A of our corporate press culture. Overeducated peaceniks like me now run the press and the Government, and many of us have the stock options to prove it. The highest credential of this meritocratic elite is the Rhodes Scholarship and meanwhile we have eliminated what had been a requirement of the last order: military service.

In the last generation, the military shaped Presidents, Congressmen and writers, too. (Think of Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Charlie Peters, all Army.) These days, we have an all-volunteer military and the veterans in Congress are dying out. To the meritocracy, the two retired admirals and brigadier general who endorsed Mr. Donaldson’s report on July 20 are as consequential as scallop fishermen and contractors along the barrier islands who saw a projectile that night. Who cares about them?

You don’t have to remind me what’s wrong with the military. When I was a kid, Seymour Hersh visited The Harvard Crimson to tell us about running out his credit cards to nail the My Lai massacre story. What an inspiration he was! But if blunt Bill Donaldson with his oath to the Constitution and his dying orchard brings to mind Cincinnatus walking away from his plow to help his nation, it’s because years of battle have given him something they don’t issue in the Ivy League: a bullshit detector.

Commander Donaldson Wins Converts to His Flight 800 Missile Theory