The recent FBI sting that resulted in the arrest of a British arms dealer prompted CBS’s Sixty Minutes to re-air a segment on the threat to commercial aircraft posed by manpads, a shoulder-fired missile whose American version is the “Stinger.” The Brit, Hemant Lakhani, is alleged to have tried smuggling one into the U.S. and planned to smuggle fifty more. The FBI said that he intended to sell them to terrorist groups that could use them to shoot down airliners.
Sixty Minutes cited many examples of airliners having been shot down by manpads, but it failed to mention the evidence that the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island seven years ago was caused by missiles, at least one of which may have been a Stinger. The late Bill Donaldson, who made an exhaustive investigation of the crash, found that the FBI had chartered five scallop boats to trawl for six months to find the first stage of a Stinger. One of these boats had already found what the FBI described to them, but not knowing what it was they threw it back.
A month after the crash, the London Times reported that senior Iranian sources claimed that three Stingers had been smuggled into the U.S. via Canada by an Egyptian group composed of followers of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted of conspiring to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Later a Defense Intelligence Agency official knowledgeable about missile technology, who had assisted the FBI with its eyewitness interviews, told congressional staffers that he believed TWA 800 was hit by at least one manpad missile.
The damage done to the plane was far greater than anything that a Stinger could have inflicted. The entire fuselage in front of the wings was broken off by a powerful explosion near the nose that forced it up, tearing it from the rest of the fuselage. This explosion broke the nose-gear wheel doors, forcing them in. It also demolished the cockpit, which was described as a tangle of wires and debris that included a beam from the rear of the plane. How that got there has not been explained, but it confirms eyewitness testimony of an explosion in the rear of the aircraft that separated the tail from the fuselage.
The TWA 800 crash is much more complicated than a single Stinger shot bringing the plane down, but the eyewitness testimony indicates that at least one Stinger may have been involved, along with a more powerful missile that the blew off the front end of the fuselage and possibly a drone that crashed into the rear.
The one thing that Sixty Minutes could have made clear is that there is no evidence that supports the official claim that the crash resulted from a spontaneous explosion in the center-wing fuel tank. The evidence is very clear that the fuel tank did not explode when the plane was above thirteen thousand feet and lost its nose. A pilot who observed the accident from an altitude of 8,500 feet says that TWA 800 was a thousand feet below him when the fuel tank burst into flames creating a trail of black smoke.