Why the ‘TWA Flight 800’ Documentary Is Wrong

Screenshot from the documentary “TWA Flight 800”

I've watched “TWA Flight 800” — the much-hyped Epix original documentary that purports to present “new” evidence proving that a missile attack brought down the Paris-bound Boeing 747 over the Atlantic 17 years ago this month. Yesterday I interviewed Hank Hughes, a former NTSB investigator who was involved in the TWA 800 investigation. Here is why the film and Hughes are wrong.

I'll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but suffice it to say there’s really nothing new in the film — although the filmmakers go to great lengths to make it seem that way. The biggest surprise in the documentary is the claim that not one but as many as three missiles may have downed TWA Flight 800. According to the theory, two missiles rose from the ocean while a third object was seen over Long Island’s Patchogue Bay.

The supposed smoking gun that proves the missile theory is primary radar data that the filmmakers say shows debris blasting from the 747 at a speed in excess of Mach 4 — far faster than would be possible if an explosion of the center fuel tank alone caused the airplane to break apart. What’s strange about this blockbuster claim is that the filmmakers spend just three and a half minutes of the hour and a half film discussing the suspicious radar signature. If this truly was the hard evidence that proved a missile downed TWA Flight 800, shouldn’t this facet of the story have been featured more prominently?

Instead, much of the film focuses on the stories of eyewitnesses, who recall seeing something that looked like a flare or "cheap fireworks" streaking through the sky toward TWA Flight 800 just before it exploded. This is apparently how the filmmakers arrive at the conclusion that a missile or missiles brought down the 747.

For the record, I don't think the people who made this documentary are seeking to make a quick dollar or created it just for the publicity. Tom Stalcup, a physicist who has become obsessed with proving the TWA Flight 800 missile theory, is the film’s primary narrator and one of the producers. His motives seem noble; he believes what the film sets out to prove. But after it airs on July 17, people who watch it at home will be left with more questions than answers.

I know I was. So I called Hank Hughes yesterday afternoon to ask him about the film’s inconsistencies. The first question I asked him was how it's possible that missiles brought down TWA Flight 800 and yet not a single fragment of missile was ever recovered.

He answered that the FBI was in charge of the recovery of the wreckage and may have removed the missile fragments if any were found. I find this explanation extremely hard to swallow. An FBI agent isn’t going to know whether he’s looking at mangled missile parts or Boeing 747 parts with enough certainty to gather and remove every last piece. There was also no direct damage to the 747 that would indicate a missile hit. For this Hughes had an answer at the ready: They were "proximity fuse missiles," designed to explode near the airplane, not shoot through it.

Next I asked him about the radar data. The NTSB calls the filmakers' analysis of the radar signatures "flawed." Hughes reiterated that the real smoking gun is the "totality" of the evidence: the eyewitness accounts, the radar data, the fact that the FBI agents who were involved in the parallel criminal investigation didn’t seem like nice guys, and on and on.

To believe everything the TWA Flight 800 documentary claims, you would have to believe every statement from every Long Island housewife who thought she saw a missile streaking through the sky; you’d have to believe that multiple missiles were fired from separate locations and then the evidence was successfully suppressed; and you’d have to believe that NTSB investigators and government agents were involved in covering it up.

Or you could pick up the NTSB’s 400-page final accident report and read it. Then you’d know what really happened to TWA Flight 800.

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