NYT, National Review, New York R – Elaine Scarry is a Harvard English professor who thinks she has figured out what caused the crash of TWA Flight 800, as well as several other recent air crashes. Flight 800 exploded after taking off from Kennedy airport on July 17, 1996, enroute to France. Since there were military training exercises going on nearby, it has been speculated that an errant missile shot the plane down by mistake.

While doing some research for a magazine article, Scarry came upon the startling information that U.S. Air Force Black Hawk helicopters have been crashing due to electromagnetic interference (EMI) from nearby military planes. EMI is the reason that airline passengers are asked to turn off cellphones and computers during take off and landing. The energy from one electrical device can interfere with another. There were military ships and planes in the vicinity of Flight 800. Could they be the reason it crashed?

As befitting an English teacher, she published her research in The New York Review of Books in April 1998. She eventually published two more articles there, attributing the same EMI theory to the crash Swissair Flight 111 due to an electrical fire in September 1998, and EgyptAir Flight 990, the plane that plunged into the Atlantic last October on what was suspected to be a suicide attempt by the co-pilot. There wasn?t much evidence to support the EgyptAir suicide theory, except that the co-pilot uttered the Arabic equivalent of “Oh God!” before the crash and he?d been described as being a bit depressed before the flight. The combined deaths from the three crashes totaled 676 people.

Scarry learned everything she could about EMI. She found out that emissions from antennas on the ground or in military planes can disconnect a plane?s autopilot, jam equipment, cause electrical short circuits, put a plane into a sudden dive, interrupt fuel flow, or even trigger on-board explosions. Our military even has special planes that are designed to cause these problems in enemy aircraft, while our fighters are coated with EMI-resistant materials. She discovered that two planes, one Black Hawk helicopter, a Coast Guard cutter and an Aegis cruiser had all had been within 200 miles of TWA 800 when it fell into the ocean.

After Swissair 111 crashed due to an electrical fire in its cockpit, Scarry thought, “It?s so obvious that this is the same thing.” She spent 100 hours transcribing tapes of conversations between the plane?s pilot and the air traffic controllers. What she found so alarmed her that she wrote another article on the subject for The New York Review.

“Like TWA 800, Swissair 111 is believed to have suffered an electrical catastrophe,” she wrote. “In the case of Swissair 111 as in the case of TWA 800, the originating event remains mysterious. A third feature of the two accidents is location and a fourth is timing.” Both planes took off from JFK airport on a Wednesday night at 8:19 and both flew the same near two military practice zones. Both planes first had trouble about 12 minutes into their flights.

The media focused on what happened to the Swissair plane an hour later when the pilot requested permission to make an emergency landing. But after listening to tapes of the cockpit voice recorder, Scarry realized that the plane had lost radio contact with air traffic controllers earlier, at 8:33 p.m., almost the exact same time that TWA 800 had begun its fatal descent. “The literature of electromagnetic interference is full of stories about unwanted electrical upsets that recur in the same space at the same time,” Scarry wrote ominously. For her third article, on EgyptAir 990, she noted that the plane went down over a military practice zone.

As expected, Bernard Loeb, director of the office of aviation safety at the National Transportation, disagrees with Scarry?s theories, and says, “Radio blackouts occur for a lot of different reasons. She?s linking things in place and time that really don?t make sense.”

David Evans, managing editor of Air Safety Week, an industry newsletter, says, “Coincidences, however compelling, do not add up causality. The fact that two planes took off at the same minute the same night of the week and took the same flight path doesn?t mean anything.”

The airline industry wants us to believe that the fact that the first two crashes were so similar is merely a coincidence and that the third crash occurred because a trained professional pilot suddenly and inexplicably decided to kill himself, taking hundreds of passengers down with him.

Sorry guys; now it?s our turn to be skeptical.

Sources: New York Times Sunday Magazine, Nov. 19, 2000, The National Review; The New York Review of Books

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