Posted Friday, November 9, 2001

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The ineffable Ari Fleischer, whose Phil Silvers manner gives him all the conviction of a costermonger from Petticoat Lane, assures us, the public, that this is a mechanical failure, NOT terrorism.





Monday, November 12, 2001
(Port Inglis, Florida, USA)

I CHECK out of the Baton Rouge hotel around 10:30 a.m. EST. As I go into the hotel lobby in Baton Rouge to check out, it is déjà vu -- the hotel-lobby's TV screen is filled with fires, firemen, and wreckage: An American Airlines wide-bodied airliner, Flight 587, has crashed in the Queens suburb of Rockaway Beach, at 9:17 a.m., three minutes after take-off from New York's Idlewild airport.

The radio bulletins for the next ten hours as I drive east are crowded with U.S. government officials, including the ineffable Ari Fleischer, whose Phil Silvers manner gives him all the conviction of a costermonger from Petticoat Lane, assuring us, the public, that this is a mechanical failure, NOT terrorism. The Dow index still dives 200 points, then recovers slightly.

Somebody (I think it is New York governor George Pataki) is quoted as saying that the pilot started jettisoning fuel, which would be proof that he had detected a mechanical failure. Ho-hum: within just three minutes of take-off, the pilot has had the time and presence of mind to take stock of the situation and start that emergency procedure, over Jamaica Bay, so that it is already visible from the ground? I doubt it.


The Airbus's tail stabilizer was recovered from the water of Jamaica Bay some distance from the near-vertical impact site of the fuselage at Rockaway Beach. No airbus has ever had a structural wing failure. (AP Photo/Daniel P. Derella)

People begin talking of a "bird strike". Others talk of "a catastrophic engine event", which is putting it mildly: An engine was seen falling off -- it landed on a Texaco gas station -- but apparently a wing also, as even the ubiquitous baseball-capped mayor of New York City, Rudi Giulani, says that he sighted it some way away in Jamaica Bay as he flew over the area.

The film shows however that it is the tail-fin that is being lifted out of the sea (and that is where the flight recorders are housed). Another engine is found in a different suburb. Ground witnesses say they clearly saw a "very distinct, orange" explosion, and then one wing torn off in the air before the plane turned over and nose-dived into the ground.

Later: The Black Box has been found and taken to Washington. Early reports conflict as to whether it is the cockpit-voice or flight-data recorder.

It may of course indeed be a mechanical malfunction. The A-300 Airbus has suffered it share of mishaps over the years, but these have invariably been related to pilot-error and to its computerised fly-by-wire system, not to its General Electric engines.

Being an inveterate conspiracy theorist, I begin to wonder -- since the engine has obviously broken away -- if the plane has been brought down by a heat-seeking ground fired missile like, erm, a Stinger? Now that would worry the average airline passenger. The plane reached 2,800 feet before disaster struck. What is the range of a Stinger, I wonder?


AS I drive through Alabama, my mind wanders. I begin to fantasize. Do the much vaunted terror-cells of Al-Qaida have a death-ray that can stop engines?

There were wonderful rumours of such a Nazi device in World War II. Field-Marshal Erhard Milch, Hermann Göring's number two, explaining to me one 1940 diary entry ("a death-ray machine"), told me thirty-five years ago that an inventor came to the Reichsmarschall with just such a ray-machine, capable of bringing down a plane at a range of 10,000 meters, he claimed. After millions of Reichsmarks were expended, the inventor came back and confessed, very shamefaced, that he had made an error in his math that was every bit as grievous as the inches-instead-of-centimetres howler that caused NASA's space probe to miss Mars: the Nazi inventor had got the decimal point in the wrong place -- the death ray would work at a range of 0.00001 metres, but not 10,000 metres.

When I watch the spaced-out, simpering, act of the Rev. Osama bin Laden on television, I estimate that he would be a sucker for such inventors too. Let's hope it's they who have supplied him with the "nuclear weapon" that has The Daily Telegraph and the nice Mr Wolfovitch at the Pentagon in such a state of jitters.

I drive all day to Port Inglis in Northern Florida, where I check into a motel at 9:30 pm local time. A long day. Another long day's drive ahead tomorrow, then ¡basta!

I have left my eye-glasses in the truck stop from which I have had to re-email the package of website updates I sent to London before I left the Baton Rouge hotel at 10:30 a.m.; the email package had still not appeared in the London office's email by four p.m., then suddenly did so! That is a real mystery: I guess that the US government's Carnivore computer search-engine withheld my email package because of the Mohammed Atta materials, then released it four hours later! All very interesting.

At 10:53 pm a NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] female announces at a televised press conference that it is the cockpit voice recorder they have recovered. "Everything tells us that we are proceeding appropriately -- considering it to be an accident." No word of jettisoning fuel now. She does not reveal anything the recorder contains, and the phrasing of her statement seems to be rather convoluted.

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I am informed that the range of a Stinger anti-aircraft missile is 11-15,000 feet. Also press reports make clear that the A300 Airbus had no provision for jettisoning fuel in an emergency, so Pataki was mistaken. For the sake of completeness we add this link to the story in The Guardian on the 1999 crash of EgyptAir 990: a pilot said the tailfin must have been blown off by an explosive. -- David Irving, Tuesday, November 13, 2001
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