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TWA 800: A Second Exchange

The following correspondence took place between Elaine Scarry, author of “The Fall of TWA 800: The Possibility of Electromagnetic Interference,” published in the April 9, 1998, issue, and James E. Hall, Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. Previous correspondence between Elaine Scarry and Chairman Hall appeared in the July 16 issue.

July 8, 1998
Dear Ms. Scarry:

Thank you for your June 17, 1998, letter regarding the National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation of the accident involving TWA flight 800. In your letter, you stated that you were interested in hearing about Safety Board research on the possible role of High Intensity Radiated Fields (HIRFs) in the TWA flight 800 accident. I wanted to take this opportunity to update you on the Safety Board’s efforts.

The Safety Board is working with the Joint Spectrum Center (JSC) in Annapolis, Maryland, to conduct a study of the electrical field strength, which may have existed in the airspace around TWA flight 800 when the accident occurred. The JSC maintains extensive files on the capabilities and characteristics of military aircraft, vessels, and ground-based transmitters. It has investigated the possible role of electromagnetic interference in aircraft accidents in the past. Its analysts provided exceptional expertise in this area during the investigation of the crash of a US Air Force CT-43A (Boeing 737) in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. The JSC will provide Safety Board investigators with classified information regarding military emitters, as well as military reports on electromagnetic interference (EMI), including reports generated by Colonel Charles Quisenberry that you mentioned in your article in The New York Review. Although the Safety Board will consider all of this information in its analysis of the TWA flight 800 accident, some of the details of military emitters are classified and cannot be divulged to the public.

The Safety Board is also discussing EMI/HIRF research with researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Langley Research Center. Researchers there have conducted flight tests with a Boeing 757 and have taken measurements of the electromagnetic environment inside the aircraft in the presence of HIRF from known antenna sites. The Safety Board is evaluating with the NASA staff ways in which their work can provide information on the electromagnetic environment that may have existed inside TWA flight 800.

I appreciate your continued interest and comments regarding this aspect of our investigation. Sincerely,

Jim Hall

Elaine Scarry replies:

July 16, 1998
Dear Chairman Hall:

Thank you for your July 8, 1998, letter which describes the most recent stage of the Safety Board’s research into the possible role of High Intensity Radiated Fields in the TWA 800 accident.

You state three major pieces of information. Each of the three is extremely heartening to me and (I would think) to anyone concerned about High Intensity Radiated Fields. The first is that the Joint Spectrum Center will attempt to assess the electrical field strength of the airspace around TWA 800. The second is that you will be engaged in discussion with NASA. The third is that the 1988 Air Force Study into the effects of radio waves on military craft—headed by Colonel Quisenberry—is now being made available to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The expertise of the Joint Spectrum Center on the phenomenon of HIRFs must surely be high. Eliminating the problem of electromagnetic interference is the very task for which that agency was brought into being. Formerly called the Electromagnetic Compatibility Analysis Center, the agency is centrally responsible for ensuring compatibility of electromagnetic signals not only across the various branches of the military but between the military and civilian realms. Included among its functions is (according to the limited printed information available to me) the specific task of making certain that a scheduled military exercise does not conflict with, or in any way imperil, civil society.

Naturally an observer must have some question about the Joint Spectrum Center’s own position as both investigator and partial subject since, as noted above, it bears partial responsibility for anticipating the electromagnetic complications of military exercises. (In saying this, I do not call into question the integrity of the Joint Spectrum Center, but simply acknowledge the longstanding legal principle that separates the subject of an inquiry from the agents carrying it out.) Nevertheless, I assume that the NTSB and the JSC have evaluated this potential conflict of interest and have devised a way of circumventing it.

Your revelation that NASA, as well as the Joint Spectrum Center, will be assisting you in determining the electromagnetic environment outside and inside the plane is also very reassuring, especially since their work (the 1994 NASA study by Martin Shooman of the effect of HIRFs on civilian planes; the present research you cite on Boeing 757s) places them in the position of having intricate information about outcomes that occur in actual flight.

Although both laboratory data and actual field data will make crucial contributions to our understanding, the inadequacy of the first to predict the second has repeatedly been stressed in the scientific and military literature. A leading Air Force scientist, Carl Baum (quoted in my article at length on pages 64-65 of the April 9 New York Review), refers to the laboratory test as an “electromagnetic hammer” that in its crudity cannot adequately reveal the complexity of what happens in real flight. This point is also stressed by pilots who are quoted in the public record as saying they are put in jeopardy by flying through airspace whose electromagnetic complexity has not been duplicated in the laboratory. Both NASA and the Joint Spectrum Center should be able to bring forward concrete information about the actual environment.

One key source—to me the most potentially important of all—has so far not been included in your description of the research now being undertaken: the men and women who were on the ten or more military craft in the area. Nothing can substitute for the information they can provide, especially in view of the important part—noted above—of realistic physical evidence in analyzing the complexities of electromagnetic interaction. The eyes and ears of the country’s defense are greatly assisted by the powerful radars and sonars; but our final security resides in the observations of living persons. Over the past two years, press accounts of the accident have remarked on the absence of information about the accident from the country’s powerful (and astonishingly expensive) ground, ship, air, and satellite monitors. But, so far as we have been told, the most acute and trustworthy sensing equipment of all has not been consulted. If the men and women who were present on the various aircraft, ships, and military installations in the area have been invited to give concrete, minute-by-minute information about the precise equipment that was turned on and turned off, the public has not been informed about it.

I understand that reasons of state can sometimes mean that information must be withheld. But surely the fall of a civilian aircraft resulting in 230 deaths presents us with a reason of state of the highest order. Without concrete information from the men and women who were present, I cannot understand how the NTSB, JSC, and NASA can evaluate the precise electromagnetic environment; and without that evaluation, there is no way to know whether or not High Intensity Radiated Fields caused the catastrophe.

If I may make a suggestion, it would be that there should be—if there is not already—a person or persons inside the Safety Board specifically designated to assess High Intensity Radiated Fields as a potential cause. It is of course crucial that other experts would subject any seemingly positive evidence about HIRFs to rigorous testing. But just as the positive arguments and evidence need to be tested, so, too, do the negative arguments and evidence. Having both positive and negative views represented would increase the chance that the truth will eventually be arrived at, whatever that truth may be. If you have not already done so, I hope you might consider inviting into the formal inquiry some of the scientists or military persons (in addition to members of the JSC) who have dealt directly with HIRF inquiries, such as Colonel Charles Quisenberry, whose Air Force study is now in your possession, and Martin Shooman, whose research for NASA on civilian planes gives us important information on this subject.

I appreciate your generosity in taking time to write to me and am honored to be in conversation with you. Sincerely yours,

Elaine Scarry

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