Re: TWA flight 800 and the missile theory

From: (Don Stokes)
Organization: Victoria University of Wellington
Date:         22 Jul 96 01:53:07 
References:   1 2
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In article <>,
Karl Swartz <kls@ohare.Chicago.COM> wrote:
>A popular theory for the crash of TWA flight 800 seems to be that it
>was shot down using a missile (a Stinger?) from a hand-held launcher,
>either launched from short (allegedly out of range) or from a boat.
>Reports of a streak in the sky and a radar blip merging with TW 800
>are used to support this notion, though the military says the blip was
>a momentary electronic phantom and that the 747 was both too high and
>too far off shore to be within range of such a missile.  Let's assume
>it was *possible*, that is, range and altitude aren't an issue.
>I still have one problem with the missile theory.  Korean Airliners
>007 was shot down by two missiles launched from a Soviet Sukhoi-15
>fighter, 6-12 km (the reports I have are unclear) behind it.  I assume
>that a fighter could carry missiles with significantly more punch than
>any sort of hand-held missile.  Yet there was no fireball, no in-
>flight breakup of KE 007.  One missile hit near the tail while the
>second ripped off a substantial portion of the left wing.  Far from an
>explosion and fireball, followed by breakup of the airframe, the plane
>had electric power for another minute and 44 seconds, allowing the CVR
>to record a hopeless struggle as the pilots tried to regain control of
>the crippled 747.  The evidence indicates the airframe was intact for
>the entire twelve minutes from missile hit to impact with the water.

Well, I'm pretty skeptical about the missile theory too, but let's take a
look at the two types of attack:

The Russian missiles were fired from an aircraft _behind_ the target.
The missiles fired were a radar guided one, which went for the tail, and
a heat seeker which locked onto the tailpipe of one of the engines.  I
believe the engine hit was an outer one, but it's been a while since I
read about that incident.

>From behind a 747, the bulk of the radar echo is the tail -- the
fuselage is behind the tail, and the tail itself is pretty big.

Note that neither the engines nor the tail contain fuel tanks.  The wing
in the immediate area of the engine pylon doesn't contain fuel either;
thus there's a fair chance the tanks-containing parts of the aircraft
went their separate ways basically intact or spewing fuel into airspace
that wasn't on fire.

On the other hand, a radar guided missile fired from _underneath_ the
plane would (probably) "see" the wing root area as returning the largest
echo, and aim for that, as long as it stayed underneath, as in the case
if the missile was fired from a point forward of the aircraft.  That area
does contain fuel, and if an explosion and fire in that area caused the
wing root to fail, the whole structure would quickly disintegrate.

A heat seeking missile would of course still go after the engines; Maybe
if it hit an inboard engine the debris could rip into the wing root and
burn the plane.  I dunno.

I have seen photos of a Pan Am 707 out of San Francisco with its wing
burning after the number 4 engine split a turbine disk, disintegrated and
departed.  The wing burned and broke off at the No. 4 pylon.  The pilot
managed to nurse the plane back to an airfield after shutting down fuel
flow to the departed engine, putting the fire out.  Jet fuel fires can
burn through structures quite nicely if you can get them started in the
first place.

Don Stokes, Network Manager, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. +64 4 495-5052 Fax+64 4 471-5386