Conspiracy Theories and Plane Crashes

Almost every high-profile airplane crash, it seems, is trailed by a conspiracy theory of one sort or another. It’s hard to say which is the most notorious, since they stretch back to death of Dag Hammarskjold and the heydays of the Bermuda Triangle (anyone remember In Search Of, with Leonard Nimoy?).

The TWA 800 disaster, at least in my years following the business, is probably the most mulled over crash in the minds of, shall we say, the intellectually eccentric. But I’ve even heard suggestions that the crash of EgyptAir flight 990, which went down in the Atlantic three years ago after takeoff from JFK, was intended to be a 9/11-style suicide flight, thwarted at the last minute by a crewmember. “The plane,” one man writes, recounting some completely fallacious report he’d read somewhere (the Net, do you think?), “Had actually turned back toward New York.”

The crash of a United Airlines 737 at Colorado Springs in 1991, long since attributed to a rudder malfunction, was purported by many (including many pilots) to be a murder-suicide involving the captain and first officer. According to the bogus story, the two were a feuding husband and wife who’d been paired together for the trip. Somebody whipped out an axe and….you get the idea.

More recently, the mongers are speculating last November’s crash of Amercian Airlines flight 587 in New York was the result of a bombing and coverup. The evidence, the theory asserts, was squelched by a government eager to avoid further crisis, those still-smoldering twin towers just a few miles away. While it’s not inconceivable, I don’t give much credence to the idea. My hunch, in line with the investigation thus far, is that the vertical stabilizer (tail) was torn loose when an undetected crack in its composite construction was further stressed by the combination of wake turbulence from a 747 and, possibly, accidental overuse of rudder by the crew.

Some of my brethren will not be eager to embrace the most likely explanations, which are understandably disheartening: 1. spontaneous (more or less) structural failure of an airplane, and 2., a fellow pilot making a bad situation worse. There’s an element of denial here, if you ask me.

After TWA 800 many pilots chimed in with “Come on, airplane fuel tanks don’t simply explode.” Except sometimes, if extremely rarely, they do, and flight 800 is one of at least two documented cases. With AA 587, it’s “Tails don’t simply snap off!” Except, again, under certain and albeit very unusual circumstances, they will.

Interestingly, and perhaps a testament to just how profligate our imaginations can get, there’s even a kind of reverse conspiracy website devoted to the notion that Pan Am 103 was blown up over Lockerbie not by a terrorist’s stash of Semtex, but from the effects of a burst cargo door.

And now, in an electronic forum near you, enter the unfortunate Paul Wellstone. Message boards are bringing up suggestions that the crash of Senator Paul Wellstone’s plane was suspicious. This was, I suppose, inevitable from the day of the crash, and the postings and otherwise electronically-circulating insinuations I’ve seen — some delivered with more conviction than others — are chiefly the work of people with a grade school knowledge of airplanes and little understanding of the dynamics of crashes.

Or else, of course, the writers are fully aware of their lack of expertise and merely trying to manipulate people with impressive-sounding balderdash (imagine that: politically motivated misinformation).


Q: One posting discusses how the fuselage of Wellstone’s plane should not have “burst into flames” upon impact, as reported, because it had separated from the wings beforehand. If fuel is carried in the wings, doesn’t this make some sense?

In critiquing the above example, let’s begin by mentioning that fuel is sometimes stored in the fuselage as well as the wings. We’d need to know the placement of tanks in the model of aircraft involved. Further, “burst into flames” isn’t exactly an unambiguous account. And if the wings did separate before impact, at which point along their length and integral fuel tanks did this break occur? And where did they come to rest, relative to the rest of the wreckage?

And so on. Questions like these are for the NTSB, and the submitted evidence is dubious at best.

But why stop there? This next one is much more fun, and supposedly penned by a pilot…

Q: Unfortunately, the likelihood of Sen. Wellstone being murdered now approaches 100%. Fact: Pilots called the tower at 7 miles from touchdown at 150 knots with glide angle of 5 degrees. Fact: Both pilots became unconscious at exactly the same moment with no call of any problem received by tower. Fact: Plane observed by ground witnesses to “drift” in final flight. Fact: Below 3000 feet visibility was good and no icing. Fact: Initial NTSB reports state forward wing de-ice controls were operational. Fact: If I were in my pilot seat and became unconscious and slumped forward, my chest would push the plane into a 15 degree pitch angle. All ground observers cite 15 degree angle of final approach. So, two dead pilots, no radio calls of mechanical failure, and an uncontrolled final approach? Assassination by barometrically released gas and thermite ignition. Sorry, but Bush and his boys play for keeps and we have begun to see what an incredibly corrupt gang of oil thugs they actually are.

Yes I see. Let’s examine this one a piece at a time. But I’d like to begin by stating that I do not necessarily disagree with the writer’s final sentence, which makes the rest of the mess even more irritating because the plausibility level is so low. The kernel of his sentiment aside, a fool and his credibility are soon parted. Ready, go….

Unfortunately, the likelihood of Sen. Wellstone being murdered now approaches 100%.

Fact: Always clever to begin with an illogical premise and work illogically from there.

Pilots called the tower at 7 miles from touchdown at 150 knots with glide angle of 5 degrees.

Fact: What he’s trying to say here is that prior to things getting weird, the plane was heretofore established on a normal and uneventful approach. “Five degrees” is very technical; must be airplane talk. (Actually it’s a few degrees steeper than a typical approach, but the proposition is accepted.)

Both pilots became unconscious at exactly the same moment with no call of any problem received by tower.

Fact: Nobody has any idea who was unconscious or when or why they became that way. And in the heat of battle, especially when trouble requires their full attention, pilots will not “call the tower” to discuss the matter.

Plane observed by ground witnesses to “drift” in final flight.

Fact: Eyewitness accounts of air crashes are notoriously inaccurate and wildly inconsistent. But regardless, yes, the plane was probably drifting in one manner or another, since it was on its way to crashing.

Below 3000 feet visibility was good and no icing present. Initial NTSB reports state that forward wing de-ice controls were operational. [Note: Ice buildup, which can be dangerous, especially on smaller planes like this one, is/was a suspected culprit.]

Fact: Like with turbulence, icing conditions are fickle and unpredictable, and nobody can say whether icing existed or not, or if the plane was carrying any accretion from minutes prior. And with small airplanes, rapid icing can overcome even operational de-ice controls. Meanwhile, initial NTSB reports are just that.

If I were in my pilot seat and became unconscious and slumped forward, my chest would push the plane into a 15 degree pitch angle. All ground observers cite a 15 degree angle of final approach.

Fact: But you said it was five degrees. Increased to 15 as they went along, is that the idea? Either way, this slumping business is ludicrous. Slumping against the controls could result in any manner of descents and/or angles of bank, most likely building in severity until hitting the ground. Topping off the nonsense, we’re asked to believe witnesses glanced upward, caught sight of a crashing airplane, and (with protractors ready?) measured out 15 degrees of pitch. Accurately judging descent angle from below would be quite difficult even for pilots.

Assassination by barometrically released gas and thermite ignition.

Fact: With all the causes and apparent injustices in the world worthy of your time and a frothy letter, you chose this one, which was probably a bad idea.

Warning: Email writers are asked to restrain from gratuitous use and placement of the word “fact” when dissenting to the opinions just expressed.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.