Joe Brancatelli on Business Travel

Airlines Feared a 'Friendly Fire' Disaster; Have We Had Our 

 Joe Brancatelli 

July 21, 1997

A day after the downing of TWA 800 last July, an executive 
of an international airline invited me to lunch. From the 
moment I slid into the banquette at his stodgy private 
club, I knew this was going to be a different kind of lunch 
altogether."So what's your take on TWA 800?" the executive 
asked before I could settle in.The question stunned me. 
Over all the years I had known this guy, he never 
speculated on matters of safety or security, and once said 
sourly, "Never say 'crash' to an airline guy" when I 
jokingly asked about the "crash" of his company stock 
price."Well," I stammered. "I mean, there's no 'good' news 
here. If it was a missile, there's gonna be hell to pay. If 
it was terrorism, the recriminations and the security 
measures will be positively fascist. And if it was 
mechanical, it was catastrophic failure like we've never 
seen before.""It was a missile," the executive said evenly. 
"Friendly fire. We kept telling the military this would 
happen one day. And the bastards just kept doing it and 
doing it. And now hundreds of people are dead."I didn't say 
anything. We didn't even have water on the table yet and 
here was this wild accusation from an airline guy I 
considered Mr. Button Down. I took a quick mental inventory 
of what I knew about him: He was former military, his son 
was a TWA pilot, and we'd had a brief conversation a couple 
of months back when one of his airline's planes was chased 
by two military fighter jets across the North Pacific."What 
are we talking about?" I finally managed to mumble.Grimly, 
the executive laid out his theory: TWA 800 took off, was 
picked up on radar by U.S. fighters, and then was made the 
"target" by a giddy pilot. As so often happens, this 
military pilot was playing an ad hoc war game: lock onto a 
commercial jet, make believe its an enemy plane, then blow 
it out of the sky. Only this time, the executive insisted, 
something went terribly wrong and the game turned real."For 
years we've been complaining about the military locking 
onto commercial jets and using them for target practice," 
the executive said. "We go down to the Pentagon and bitch 
and they promise it'll never happen again. Then, when it 
does happen again, the brass says, 'no harm, no foul.' I 
think they just fouled."Over the course of this very 
peculiar lunch, the airline executive also laid out several 
eerie scenarios: Watch the government attempt to discredit, 
then ignore, then awkwardly explain away the eyewitness 
accounts that support the "missile theory." Watch the 
President make an unprecedented gesture to the families of 
the TWA 800 victims. Watch how the cockpit recorders will 
reveal no signs of crew comments indicating mechanical 
failure. Watch how a mechanical problem will be vaguely 
blamed, yet no 747s will be grounded.Most of all, he said, 
"Watch the players.""What do you mean, 'Watch the 
players?'""Joe," he said, as if quizzing a befuddled child, 
"Who has the statutory authority to investigate air crashes 
in this country?""Well," I said, "The National 
Transportation Safety Board, except if...""Except if there 
is criminal activity involved and then the FBI is in the 
mix.""So," I wondered, "What's the point?""Like I said, 
watch the players. Forget about what they say and what they 
do. Eventually, they will tell you its not a bomb, it not 
a missile, its a mechanical. But watch how the FBI doesn't 
go away. If its a mechanical, the FBI has no legal 
authority to be anywhere near the NTSB. But watch how the 
FBI will never go away."I left that luncheon scared. I 
wondered how a right-thinking, by-the-book airline 
executive become a conspiracy freak.Except...Except how 
come no airline executive I know thinks this luncheon 
conversation was strange? How come, whenever I ask about 
TWA 800, they obsess about the number of times their 
aircraft have been "targets" of military jets playing war 
games?Except how come everything that airline executive 
predicted during that lunch has come true?The government 
has gone to extraordinary--sometimes laughable--lengths to 
discredit, ignore, then explain away eyewitness accounts. 
President Clinton and the First Lady did take the 
unprecedented step of flying to Kennedy Airport to console 
the families of the TWA 800 victims. They didn't fly to 
Detroit in January to comfort the families of the victims 
of the Comair crash and they didn't go to Florida to 
comfort the families of last year's ValuJet crash. How come 
the cockpit recorders didn't yield any clue of a mechanical 
failure? How come no 747s have been grounded if there 
really is a catastrophic problem with their center fuel 
tanks?And, how come, if you watch the players, the FBI is 
still intimately involved with the investigation more than 
a year out?Deputy FBI director James Kallstrom has shadowed 
the NTSB since the moment TWA 800 went down. He tells 
anyone who listens that there's no evidence of a bomb or a 
missile. Yet he told Congress as recently as July 10 the 
FBI will remain involved in what should otherwise be 
strictly NTSB business.Something is very wrong here, fellow 
travelers. Very wrong. 


Joe Brancatelli, a veteran business journalist based in 
Cold Spring, New York, writes weekly on business travel for He also has written for a wide range of print 
publications, including the Los Angeles Times and Fortune 

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