Concerning the Fall of TWA 800, Swissair 111 and EgyptAir 990;

The Unfriendly Skies Scenario.

Didier de Fontaine

 

Professor Scarry's hypothesis

Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics and Value Theory in the English Department at Harvard University, and winner of the prestigious Truman Capote prize for literary criticism, has published three lengthy articles in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) concerning the accidents which befell commercial flights TWA 800, Swissair 111 and EgyptAir 990. In these lengthy articles [1-3], Ms. Scarry describes in detail the circumstances of the accidents and the location and times of the crashes. In addition, the NYRB has printed some correspondence between Ms. Scarry and Acting Chairman James Hall of the National Transportation Safety Board concerning the circumstances of these catastrophic events [4, 5]. A fourth study by Ms. Scarry on the same subjects has recently been placed on the web site of the NYRB [6] along with the texts of the articles and the correspondence just mentioned.

TWA

On July 17, 1996, flight TWA 800, a Boeing 747-100 bound for Paris, took off from JFK International Airport, and about 15 minutes later dove into the ocean south of Long Island, killing all 230 passengers and crew. Ms. Scarry tells us that "TWA 800 began to suffer its catastrophe at 13,700 feet. It exploded into a giant fireball 40 or 42 seconds later, an event recorded by satellite. Because the black box stopped functioning at the start of the fall, the remedial actions taken by the pilot are unknown". Since no problems had been reported by the pilots during flight, and since the plane fell into the sea, investigation into the causes of the accident proved to be extremely difficult. Not surprisingly, the mysterious disappearance of the aircraft gave rise to much speculation, some of it far-fetched. A year later, however, enough data had been assembled to narrow down the causes of the catastrophe to the explosion of a center wing fuel tank in the Boeing 747-100. Even today, four and one half years after the event, the exact origin of the explosion has not been pinpointed, although the culprit appears to have been electrical arcing of defective or damaged wiring near the fuel tank, causing ignition of gasoline fumes.

In her 1998 NYRB article, Elaine Scarry proposes a different explanation, that of electromagnetic interference (EMI; I shall henceforth use the acronym XEMI to emphasize that the considered interference is assumed to be from sources external to the airplane). In a recent article entitled "Professor Scarry Has a Theory" [7], journalist Emily Eakin explains how the professor came by her Theory: "She came across an article explaining how the US Air Force had been losing Black Hawk helicopters because of electromagnetic interference from military planes (EMI occurs when the energy emitted by one electrical device — ranging in power from a cell phone to the radar on a military plane — interferes with the performance of another). Immediately, Scarry says, she thought of TWA flight 800 whose mysterious explosion off the tip of Long Island on July 17, 1996 continued to elude federal aviation authorities' attempts to explain it. Could EMI from military ships and planes in the vicinity of TWA flight 800 have taken down the plane?" Professor Scarry answers definitely in the affirmative and, in her 1998 NYRB article [1], proceeds to build her case by (a) describing various incidences of problems which had in the past plagued some military crafts and which could be attributable to EMI and (b), by cataloging the military craft known to have been located in the vicinity of TWA 800 at the time of the accident. In particular, Ms. Scarry notes that several military planes and ships were in the area, including submarines 80 miles south, an Aegis cruiser 185 miles away, and several P3 Orion planes. The planes and ships are carefully described by Ms. Scarry along with their military characteristics to the extent allowed by national security. One can only marvel at the quantity of research required to dig up all that information! Since the opportunity for XEMI was so great at the time and place of the TWA accident, particularly from high-powered military gadgetry, Ms. Scarry requests that a complete survey of all electromagnetic radiation in the area be undertaken, and that this type of investigation be carried out routinely in future cases as well.

Swissair

Professor Scarry's April 1998 article on TWA 800 had hardly appeared in the NYRB that another fatal accident occurred: on September 2, of the same year, Swissair flight (McDonnell-Douglas 11 aircraft) took off also from JFK International, also on a Wednesday, and also at 8:19 PM, and followed the same route (the so called Bette route)! Although the TWA 800 flew only 12 minutes into the flight, the Swissair 111 flew an hour longer and crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia; all passengers and crew perished. In the second [2] of her three NYRB articles on airline disasters, Elaine Scarry points out these and other similarities between the TWA and Swissair accidents and emphasizes that military craft (several P3s, several Navy submarines) were also in the area at the time of the Swissair catastrophe, though no military exercises per se were scheduled. The difference in flight times and locality of the two crashes is explained by Ms. Scarry by pointing out a mysterious 13-minute interruption of radio contact between the Swissair 111 and ground controllers, commencing when the plane was close to the location of the earlier TWA crash and occurring when the plane was flying at 27,000 feet (the NYRB article [2] includes an interesting map showing the two flight paths; Scarry's EgyptAir article [3] places the flight path of the latter airliner on the same map, a map also reproduced in color in an article by David Evans in Avionics Magazine [8]). When radio contact was reestablished, the tone of the conversation between pilot and controllers was mundane and calm, according to verbatim reports reproduced in Scarry's article [2]; the pilot seemed unaware or unconcerned about possible electronic problems aboard his plane, and he resumed climbing to 33,000 feet. Only later did he request an unscheduled landing in Boston, to which a Canadian controller replied that Halifax was the closer airport. It appears that the pilot had by that time noticed smoke in the cockpit, followed 10 minutes later by general failure of electronic control systems, and eventual fall of the aircraft in Canadian waters. The fact that there is no evidence for the eventual crash's having anything to do with the loss of radio contact can be explained, Ms. Scarry tells us, by supposing that, for a time, Swissair 111's electronics carried out acts of self-repair, only to be finally overwhelmed by problems it could no longer cope with. Since it thus appears that external electromagnetic danger is lurking in the area off Long Island, Ms. Scarry reiterates even more emphatically, in article #2, that a complete reconstruction of the electromagnetic environment of planes, ships and ground transmitters be undertaken as soon as possible by competent federal agencies.

EgyptAir

Professor Scarry's third article [3] deals with EgyptAir flight 990, a Boeing 767, which took off from JFK airport on October 31, 1999 en route to Cairo, flew East for 31 minutes, then plunged into the Atlantic Ocean east of Long Island, south of Nantucket, killing all 217 aboard. In this case, superficial analogies with the two other accidents are harder to come by: EgyptAir took off in the middle of the night, at 1:19 AM, on a Sunday, not on a Wednesday at 8:19 PM, and it did not travel along the Bette route, but along a more southerly route (see the maps referred to above). We are told that EgyptAir did not follow the standard route called "Shipp–Linnd–Lacks–Dovey", but took a short cut through one of the restricted military zones, as authorized to do so by the Atlantic Controller. Such a procedure is standard practice when no military exercises are planned in the area, and indeed none were on that Sunday around 1 AM. But Ms. Scarry cautions that "the absence of scheduled military exercises does not guarantee that no military craft were in the corridors around the warning zones or inside the warning zones" [3]. In any case, EgyptAir was cleared to climb to the standard cruising altitude of 33,000 feet and proceed directly to Dovey point without passing through Linnd and Lacks. Before reaching Dovey however, the inexplicable happened: EgyptAir 990 suddenly dropped from 33,000 feet down to 16,000 feet, then rose back up to 24,000 feet, then resumed its dive and plunged into the sea. Thus far, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) could find no evidence of mechanical or electrical failure in EgyptAir 990. However, analysis of data from the cockpit voice recorder tells a strange story: just before the erratic behavior of the plane manifested itself, Captain Ahmed Habashi excused himself to go to the bathroom, leaving relief pilot Gamil el Batouti alone in the cockpit. In Ms. Scarry's text, el Batouti's utterances and the Captain's subsequent words, when he returns to the cockpit, are relegated to footnote #33 [3], so it is best to follow the chain of events in the account given in the newsletter Air Safety Week, edited by Mr. David Evans [9]. We learn that, at time 01:48:40, el Batouti is heard saying faintly in Arabic "I rely on God". For another minute the plane pursues its normal route without modification, but then at time 01:41:45 the autopilot is disconnected. Now hand-flying the airplane alone, el Batouti repeats the incantation "I rely on God". At 01:49:53 the wing elevators are shown dropping and the plane goes down accordingly. As the plane plunged toward zero-G, passengers and any items not secured would have begun to float around, and indeed cockpit noises suggest that booklets, pens and other items were adrift and striking structure [9]. At 01:50:06 Captain Habashi re-enters the cockpit and exclaims "What's happening?"; el Batouti continues to chant. At 01:50:21 both engine levers are moved to the cut-off position and the elevators split, with the left (controlled by Captain Habashi) moving to raise the nose, and the right elevator (controlled by el Batouti) remaining in the down position. El Batouti continues his chants. At time 01:50:24 both throttles are advanced, with no engine response. The captain then exclaims, "What is this? Did you shut the engines?" Four subsequent pleas by the captain ("Pull with me") go unanswered.

Given that no evidence of equipment failure was found, and given the curious utterances in the cockpit, the US investigators tentatively concluded at a deliberate suicide (and mass murder) act by the relief pilot el Batouti. On the other hand, Elaine Scarry writes [3] "The Safety Board officials acknowledge […] that they have insufficient evidence to hold Mr. el Batouti responsible for the catastrophe; but to many onlookers (including this author [Scarry]) what they call insufficient evidence looks instead like no evidence at all." Of course, Ms. Scarry reiterates her XEMI thesis and states "The uniformity of the region itself — the environment external to the plane — should in each case be investigated " [3].

Critique, qualitative

By now, it should be apparent to anyone possessing even a smattering of scientific common sense that there is something terribly wrong with the Scarry XEMI scenario. Indeed, after reading only her second article (I had not yet seen #1, and #3 had not yet appeared), descriptions I made of her views to colleagues were invariably greeted with howls of derision or groans of disbelief. Why then did so many take Ms. Scarry's scenario seriously, why did the government spend so much time and money investigating the XEMI hypothesis, why did the prestigious New York Review of Books accept not one, but three Scarry articles, plus accounts of lengthy correspondence of hers with Mr. James Hall, Acting Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), plus a fourth lengthy article of hers on what has been done and remains to be done, thus far appearing only on the NYRB web site [6]? Let us first examine the general deficiencies in Elaine Scarry's reasoning.

To begin with, one would search in vain, in any of her three articles, for the faintest trace of a plausible mechanism supporting her XEMI hypothesis. Nowhere is it described how electromagnetic radiation (of what kind?) could cause a fuel tank to burst into flames, for example. The arguments given rely entirely on innuendoes, anecdotes, coincidences. Ms. Scarry may object that she is no scientist and therefore is not qualified to propose a mechanism. But then she should have asked a collaborator to provide the necessary expertise. Indeed, it is unacceptable methodology to suggest a scenario, and then to dare the experts to disprove it. The burden of the proof is on the one suggesting a new model, so that Ms. Scarry's way of treating the subject would have been rejected by any technical journal, no matter how lenient its refereeing policy. That the articles in question were accepted by the NYRB is properly astounding!

Secondly, the arguments presented by Ms. Scarry rest on two well-known, but fanciful, myths: (a) radiation is dangerous, and military radiation is even more dangerous, and (b) uniformity (to use her word) of circumstance implies commonality of cause.

Let us consider the second myth first. The circumstances of these accidents are indeed unusual, but one must bear in mind that most aviation accidents occur just after takeoff or just before landing, and that the flight corridors from New York to points in Europe are some of the most heavily traveled in the world, with planes taking off in rapid succession, particularly in the evening, for Canada, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, every single day of the year. Still, if such accidents were occurring at random, would we not expect them to be spread out more or less evenly in time, and not aggregated three-in-three-years within a wide interval of relatively incident-free years? On the contrary, it is known that uniformity implies non-randomness, since random sequences by definition consist of events each of which completely ignores the existence of the previous ones. In other words, the Swissair accident "did not know" about the existence of the previous TWA crash, and the EgyptAir accident "did not know" about the two preceding ones. Thus, true randomness often results, here and there, in strange accumulations of "hits", which never cease to amaze those unfamiliar with statistics, and has caused the ruin of many a gambler. The erroneous (and very common) myth that randomness implies uniformity is actually known in statistics as "the gambler's fallacy". Just for the purpose of illustration, I ran a little computer model and found runs which produced three "hits" in a row within a sequence of 30 or more "misses". Converted into time sequences, that would translate, for example, into 3 accidents in 3 years within 30 quiescent years. These considerations clearly indicate that a uniform cause is not required to explain the unfortunate sequences of accidents under discussion. It follows that Professor Scarry's motivation for suggesting the XEMI mechanism in the first place was unjustified.

And now for that infamous bugaboo "Radiation". But first, what do we mean by Electromagnetic Radiation? EM radiation runs the full gamut of sluggish radio waves (long-wave, low energy) which are quite innocuous, to high energy (extremely short wave) X-rays and gamma waves which can be lethal to living organisms if absorbed in sufficient doses. Presumably, Ms. Scarry is referring only to radio waves, but still, frequency (inverse wavelength) is important and needs to be specified. More seriously still, Ms. Scarry completely ignores some essential aspects of EM transmission: the distance factor and the coupling factor. The first one is responsible for the fact that radiation of a given frequency and intensity can cause considerable damage at a distance of 100 feet, say, but be perfectly insignificant at 100 miles. The second one is responsible for creating damaging interference at the proper frequency, or range of frequencies, but be quite ineffective if it does not "couple" properly to receiving device, i.e. is not finely tuned. Hence no sweeping statements can be made, without careful quantitative analysis, claiming that a military craft was seen in the vicinity, and hence could have caused the death of hundreds of people.

Let us look at the "distance factor" in a little more detail. Electromagnetic field strength at large distance from a radiating antenna goes as the reciprocal of the distance between source and receiver [10], and field intensity as distance squared. For a plane flying at 20 thousand feet, say, in the process of gaining cruising altitude (33,000 feet), radiation intensity just outside the aircraft would be about ten to one hundred thousand times less what it would be in the immediate vicinity of the emitter. If we take into account the impedence of the atmosphere, the shielding effect of the fuselage, and the fact that adequate radio transmitters would normally be located miles away, we very quickly arrive at a total attenuation of the order of hundreds of thousands, at least!

Perhaps, Ms. Scarry might argue, distance can be compensated for by emitter power. But if such electromagnetic power can destroy airplanes tens of miles away, think what it would do in the immediate vicinity of the emitter. Unless the emitted beam be well focused and directed away from sensitive objects nearby, depending on radiation wavelength and antenna size and shape, deleterious effects in the neighborhood would be unacceptable: automobile gas tanks would explode in the emitter station's parking lot, coffee would boil in the director's office, food would cook in the cafeteria, computer data would be destroyed in the secretarial offices, television and radio reception would be perturbed in homes for miles around. As for monster emitters on military aircraft or Navy submarines nearby, major Scarry bugaboos, they exist only in the realm of science fiction: radiation energy emitted from planes and ships, military or civilian, is severely limited by the amount of power which can be generated on board. Moreover, radiation emitted from inside an aircraft would be many orders of magnitude more effective than radiation emitted far away, so that the microwave ovens in the plane's pantry would turn out to be far more dangerous than a powerful high-frequency emitter somewhere on land. Should we then give up that delicious hot food so greatly appreciated by discerning travelers on commercial airlines? Neglecting the distance factor, as Ms. Scarry implicitly does, is completely equivalent to what is done in attempts to justify astrology, another popular myth, based of the influence of gravity. Since gravitational force also decreases with distance-squared, it is easily shown that the gravitational influence of the flower pot in the mother's room is far greater on the baby than that of the relative positions of the sun, planets and constellations at the birth of the child!

To illustrate Elaine Scarry's apparent misunderstanding of the coupling effect, consider the following example taken form her first NYRB article, covering the TWA flight. She writes [1]: "Electromagnetic interference can jam equipment, burn out electrical circuits, and even prompt explosions (as when, driving near a blasting area, one is instructed to turn off a car radio)." Of course it is not radiation emitted from the car radio per se which hypothetically causes the explosion, but the (remote) possibility that a signal emanating from the car, of just the correct frequency matching that of the receiver at the blasting site, would trigger the detonating mechanism. Electromagnetic interference of course is a real and well-documented effect, as can be observed, for example, when the operation of a vacuum cleaner causes "snow" to appear on your television screen nearby, to use an analogy suggested by Dr. Peter Ladkin [11], Professor at the University of Bielefeld, a licensed private pilot, and an expert in safety and failure analysis of computer-related accidents in commercial aviation. To pursue that analogy further, Ms. Scarry's handling of XEMI then amounts to having your vacuum cleaner burst into flames when your television set is turned on. She tends to confuse emission and reception. That surveillance and tracking by military ships and planes can be accomplished over considerable distances is common in our high-tech age, but that does not imply that interference, or better yet destruction, can be brought about at such distances by electromagnetic interference. These misconceptions bring up some interesting ideas which would forever alter modern warfare as we know it today and modify international relations between superpowers as well: if the Scarry XEMI scenario were correct, it would no longer be required to resurrect the Space Defense Initiative ("Star Wars" defense) with its costly and unreliable missiles, which currently have the unfortunate tendency to miss their targets, even in ideally programmed tests. All that would be required is to turn on the military's powerful tracking radars (which already exist) and zap the incoming enemy missiles out of the sky by a XEMI mechanism, thereby avoiding the deployment of a missile-based defense system which promises to be the biggest boondoggle in human history.

It seems obvious that Ms. Scarry has misunderstood the whole concept of electromagnetic interference, and has handled it in an anecdotal, rather than quantitative way, leading to incorrect conclusions. Blaming electromagnetic radiation for all sorts of evils, of which it is innocent, is not new. In fact, the whole XEMI story has a familiar ring, one that Dr. Robert Park, head of the Washington DC office of the American Physical Society has so amusingly chronicled in his recent book, Voodoo Science, The Road from Foolishness to Fraud [12]. Radio waves are prime candidates for "junk science" (an equivalent term), permeate (almost) all space, are unseen and unfelt by humans, are therefore "mysterious", and produce "radiation", a word which generates dread in most of the population. Chapter 7 of Dr. Park's book is particularly relevant here, as it deals with the fairly recent history of the publication by the New Yorker of a series of articles by Paul Brodeur on the (erroneous) idea that electromagnetic fields generated by high-voltage power lines could predispose people living nearby to contracting cancer. Of course, after a great many lengthy investigations it was discovered that the correlation between power lines and cancer did not exist. Actually, those costly investigations were unnecessary, as any competent scientist knew perfectly well that the probability of finding such correlations was virtually nil. Nevertheless, investigations and counter investigations went on for years, so that, to quote Dr. Park [12], "the total cost of power-line scare, including relocating lines and loss of property values, was estimated by the White House Science Office to be in excess of $25 billion". The parallels between Brodeur's articles in the New Yorker and Scarry's in the New York Review of Books are striking and disturbing. Presumably, Mr. Brodeur and the editor of the New Yorker believed that they were performing the useful function of enhancing public awareness of the dangers of electromagnetic radiation. As in the present case, mysterious coincidences were reported, and technical experts had been found who would back up Paul Brodeur's fanciful claims. A repeat performance is now in the making, this time involving the fear that cell phone (electromagnetic!) radiation could be responsible for brain cancer, yet another myth, along with that of fear of radiation from cell phone antennas. With Elaine Scarry's NYRB articles, have we begun to travel along Robert Park's road "from foolishness to fraud"? Foolishness certainly, fraud no, although the tally of absurdities appears to increase steadily from "TWA" to "Swissair" to "EgyptAir", as I shall now show.

As mentioned earlier, the circumstances surrounding the EgyptAir 990 accident differ markedly form the other two; it is therefore more difficult for Elaine Scarry to justify her belief in a common cause (XEMI) for all three events. Nonetheless, Ms. Scarry sticks to her guns and writes in a footnote of article #3 that " the TWA 800 and Swissair 111 accidents appear to be 'unmistakably electrical'; in the case of the EgyptAir 990 accident, there is persuasive, but not unmistakable, evidence that the accident could be electrical", the latter statement being clearly incorrect, as we have seen. To make her case, Elaine Scarry is then forced to use a brand of creative writing that one would not have thought possible from a Harvard professor of literature. Here are some examples of her prose. She tells us that "powerful military radars" were monitoring the EgyptAir flight; then: "It is not hard to think of reasons why EgyptAir 990 might have become an ordinary -- or even an extra-ordinary -- target of intense observation. EgyptAir 990 was, first of all, a foreign carrier from a country that is not always regarded as a close United States ally. Second, it was carrying, in addition to its civilian passengers, thirty three Egyptian military officers, including one brigadier general" [3]. Would a B-movie Hollywood director buy such a scenario? I doubt it, but apparently the NYRB had no misgivings!

There follows what I call an orgy of subjunctives of the type: "... might have come as a surprise ..., ... might have provoked ..., ... could have operated ... " and on and on. Of course anyone is entitled to make any suppositions he or she pleases, no matter how silly, but does that constitute valid arguments in cases as serious as these, in a publication as serious as this one? By the time that article #3 had been published by the NYRB, the most probable cause of the accident had already been leaked: suicide by the relief pilot el Batouti. Thus, Ms. Scarry is forced to go into denial mode, and tries mightily to avoid stating the facts as they are known at the time. For example, she mentions the famous cockpit conversation (see above), a key element in the case, only in a footnote, then proceeds to put a completely fanciful spin on the words uttered [13]. In the body of the text she replaces the suicide version by her favorite literary subterfuge of suppositions and innuendoes, as follows: "it may have been that all subsequent command actions were initiated by the pilots, desperately trying to regain control of the plane and making the best decisions they could: those actions may have been a highly competent effort to save the aircraft or they may have been, however admirable, less competent. It is possible that all four of the key events -- automatic pilot shutdown, steep dive, split-elevator anomaly, engine shutdown -- were caused by electromagnetic interference or that only some of the four were caused by electromagnetic interference, the rest by pilot intervention and attempted rescue." [my emphases]. In the Scarry interpretation, el Batouti has now been transformed into an admirable -- though ultimately unsuccessful -- savior of terrified passengers. Thus, Egyptian pilots are described as admirable, whereas careless US military personnel (possibly but not necessary in the area) are assumed to be choking the ether with death rays. I think we have here a perfect example of deliberate distortion of reality in order to conform to one's own preconceived (and erroneous) notions.

Elaine is very much concerned about EgyptAir's (authorized) shortcut: "The possible dangers within the warning zones and corridors would arise not from munitions but from high-powered radar or other electromagnetic signals from fixed ground transmitters or from transmitters on craft passing through the area". Just passing. It is thus apparent in Professor Scarry's articles that the handling of the subject matter evolves progressively from serious — though misguided — scholarship all the way to high fantasy, coming perilously close to a "Bermuda Triangle" scenario.

Critiques, more technical

TWA

Consider now the results of more technical analyses. Despite the implausibility of XEMI's causing the fall of flight TWA 800, the National Transportation Board felt compelled to look into the possibility, at the insistence of Ms. Scarry. First it was necessary to find out what sources of electromagnetic (EM) radiation were active at the time and place of the accident. To that end, in mid-1998, the NTSB asked the Department of Defense's Joint Spectrum Center (JSC) to provide the necessary data. The JSC's $45,000 study was then forwarded to the NASA who undertook a detailed 15-month investigation into the possibility that any one of the EM transmitters indicated by the JSC could have, by some XEMI mechanism, caused ignition of the TWA central wing fuel tank. The NASA report [14], completed in March 2000 (thus before the publication of Ms. Scarry's article on Swissair 111), is a very impressive one indeed: it is about 200 pages in length, contains many technical drawings and photographs, many in color, and considers not only the possible effects of external electromagnetic interference (XEMI), but also internal (YEMI, say) the latter possibly arising from radio signals originating inside the plane itself, as from passenger-operated devices. Actually, the NASA report spends more space on YEMI than on XEMI, the former being deemed more relevant. The XEMI case is treated numerically by computer calculations, the YEMI case experimentally in the laboratory. The theoretical work is impressive: standard but advanced mathematical techniques are used, such as Green's function and integral equation methods. The NASA report also summarizes the findings of the Joint Spectrum Center in table form, giving the EM characteristics of dominant emitters such as frequency, power, distance to the aircraft, polarization, energy density and so on. Taking coupling to the fuel indicator system near the center wing tank into account, the NASA concluded that the energy levels available from the dominant transmitter were thousands to tens of thousands of times too small — and these are hugely conservative estimates -- to cause ignition, hence to cause the fall of TWA flight 800. Certain energy values mentioned in the NASA report puzzled me, particularly since they seemed to have been misinterpreted in other publications based on this report. I therefore contacted some of the co-authors of the NASA report. In particular, I talked to the one person who had performed the calculations pertaining to XEMI who pointed out that the calculations were very rough ones and had to be conducted in a very short time, presumably under political pressure. He also mentioned, as I suspected, that the values of the input parameters to the relevant equations were highly uncertain. Moreover, the computer calculations were carried out only for limited radio frequency ranges, since estimated CPU computer times required to compete the calculations for high frequencies would have amounted to millions of hours! Given the apparent discrepancy between accuracy and effort, one wonders if there had not bee n a better way to go about the investigation. I therefore contacted another one of the co-authors of that report to suggest the following: why not take a grounded airliner on a testing ground, place inside it a device which simulates an electrical system susceptible of failure, then zap the plane from the outside with high-power radio emission and see what happens. That type of experiment would establish an important base line, and differences between distances, types of aircraft, type of emission, and types of on-board electrical systems could be taken care of by fairly simple order-of-magnitude numerical simulation. His answer: "this is precisely what NASA is doing right now. The completed report should be made available in a few months". Until that time we can only speculate, but it would not be surprising to me that the energy required to provoke TWA- or Swissair-type breakdowns would turn out to be very much higher than the range of values given in the existing NASA report. Note that the NASA report does not treat the case of XEMI perturbing adversely various computer-control systems of aircraft, since that is not the main thrust of Ms. Scarry's arguments.

It may therefore be concluded with quasi certainty that XEMI were not responsible for the TWA disaster, a conclusion that might have been anticipated from a simple "back of an envelope" calculation, or indeed from what I have already called "scientific common sense". Was all this expensive study really necessary? I put the question to Mr. James Hall, acting chairman of the NTSB and he answered in a letter to me dated Dec. 6, 2000 that "The cost of this research was a small percentage of the more than $50 million that was spent on the TWA flight 800 accident investigation. Additionally, the results of this work were used in our consideration of the facts and circumstances of the EgyptAir flight 990 accident investigation". Why was the Swissair 111 flight not mentioned? Simply because, since that plane fell in Canadian waters, the investigation as to the causes of the disaster is the prerogative of the Canadian Safety Board.

Mr. Hall's letter to me was quite revealing. It states: "The Safety Board concluded that the maximum possible signal strength inside the fuselage of the TWA flight 800 from the highest power emitter known to exist in the area of the accident could not have provided sufficient energy to ignite the fuel/air mixture. The findings also indicate that EMI caused by an emitter capable of transmitting even greater energy than that transmitted by the known emitters could not ignite a fuel/air mixture in a fuel tank or cause the loss of control of an aircraft". That is as emphatic a statement as one could possibly hope for from generally hyper-cautious Federal agencies. Mr. Hall's statement clearly indicates that not only was the TWA 800 not brought down by XEMI, but that, in general, that conclusion would be valid for any emitter of energy even greater than that operating at the time, not only through ignition of a fuel mixture, but even by any conceivable mechanism that might cause loss of control of an aircraft (such as interference with an autopilot, for example). What Mr. Hall does not say, however, is that XEMI cannot be the cause of airline accidents in general. For example, if a plane were to fly very close to a very powerful emitter, directing its full strength directly at the plane, then there might be cause for concern. However, FAA regulation do not generally permit this sort of situation to occur, indeed it did not for the accidents under consideration here. Mr. Hall's letter also implies that the costly NASA investigation need not be repeated for each accident nor, if I read the letter correctly, would it even be necessary to repeat the Joint Spectrum Center investigation in each separate case, unless FAA guidelines were to be seriously violated. In other words, Professor Scarry's oft-repeated admonitions that all possible sources of EMI be catalogued for each incident, i.e. that "the National Transportation Safety Board first undertake a full reconstruction of the military and civilian craft in the area surrounding each plane" [2] will simply not take place.

Swissair

Professor Ladkin, basing his analysis on data contained in the TWA NASA report, arrives at similar conclusions in his own investigation of the Swissair 111 disaster [11]. But what are the similarities between the TWA and Swissair accidents? Dr. Ladkin, quoted in David Evans's Avionics article [8], states "TWA 800 manifested problems associated with improper wire repairs, with routing high- and low-power wires in the same bundle, and with slow deterioration of insulation caused by tight bends, overstretching, and chemical changes with age. In the newer Swissair jet, inappropriate installation and routing of wiring have surfaced during the course of the still-incomplete Canadian Transportation Safety Board investigation. Investigators have found some 20 wires with evidence of arcing, and Swissair internally has proposed rerouting some wires in the cockpit area to increase separation and redundancy of vital circuits. In comparison to a speculative case of EMI, the wiring problem common to both aircraft are documented". Due to the extreme difficulty of obtaining complete data from aircraft fragments scattered on the ocean floor, the precise events leading to electrical failure has not been ascertained definitely as yet, understandably. As for the "mysterious" loss of radio contact of Swissair 111 which Ms. Scarry suggests may be related to the accident, David Evans writes that investigators of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board are well aware of the 13 minute gap, but report no evidence of EMI: there were no anomalies on the flight data recorder during this period of flight [8].

EgyptAir

As mentioned previously, no evidence of mechanical or electrical or electronic failure has been detected in the EgyptAir case. Although Ms. Scarry — and, initially the Egyptian airline — does not accept it, the hypothesis of suicide by the relief pilot el Batouti, as preposterous as it may seem, appears at this time to be the only one which is plausible. Certainly, Gamil el Batouti gave no known signs of wishing to commit suicide, and Dr. Abdel Fouad, a London psychiatrist retained by EgyptAir, concluded that relief pilot el Batouti gave no evidence of suffering from depressive disorders. On the other hand, Dr. Daniel Cappon, a Canadian psychiatrist who advocates routine psychiatric screening of airline pilots, describes el Batouti as an "acute psychotic", based of the fact that the Egyptian pilot had a documented history of exposing himself to women in US hotels and soliciting sex [9]. We shall never know the mind of el Batouti, but as more evidence piles up, the hypothesis of a deliberate act by an EgyptAir pilot becomes more difficult to deny. Ms. Scarry would like to convince us of the "admirable" nature of el Batouti's efforts, but by contrast here is the appreciation of an US airline pilot upon examining the facts of the case, as released by the NTSB: "The first officer (el Batouti) did things no pilot should ever do in attempting to achieve the safety and service inherent passenger operations. The rest is backup information. This is about flight procedures, and he broke them all". Finally, as I was writing these lines, I read in the San Francisco Chronicle of Jan. 26, 2001 the following item originating from New York: "Attorneys for EgyptAir told a federal judge that the airline has agreed to accept liability in the crash 15 months ago of Flight EgyptAir 990, a move that virtually settles the lawsuits filed by the families of the victims." Of course, the EgyptAir attorney Desmond Barry Jr. stated that the airline is not acknowledging fault on the part of a crew member; "this is simply an acceptance of legal responsibility", he said. Moreover, according to the news service, "Although the National Transportation Safety Board is still prepar ing its final report on the cause of the crash, investigators have said that physical evidence supports the suicide theory". Clearly, if the XEMI scenario had the slightest chance of being correct, EgyptAir would not have agreed so readily to admit liability.

Also of interest is this report from the Air Safety Week Newsletter of Oct. 23, 2000 [16]: "There is one telling indicator that external electromagnetic interference (XEMI) may not be the nightmare of Elaine Scarry's dreams — the absence or reports from pilots. […] One thing is sure, if pilots were experiencing upsets to flight control, navigation, or communication systems from external sources, they would be submitting reports. Yet there is not a single documented case of XEMI among the 79,500 records dating back to 1988 filed in the Aviation Safety Reporting System. Not one."

Critique of the NYRB

It follows from the foregoing that Elaine Scarry's XEMI fantasy has been completely discredited by experts in the field and, more importantly, by the facts themselves. Indeed it could not have been otherwise since her speculative theory simply violates the laws of electromagnetism in a big way. What remains inexplicable is how a serious publication like the New York Review could have published such drivel not once but thrice. What bizarre socio-political agenda could possibly have persuaded its editor, Mr. Robert Silvers, to accept such speculation completely unsupported by scientific fact? I shall surely not try to answer that question, but I shall try to shed some light on the situation by recounting my own experience when I tried to express my views to Mr. Silvers.

I had just taken out a subscription to the NYRB. When my third issue arrived, dated Sept. 21, 2000, I was horrified: the cover announced the feature article: "Swissair 111, the Untold Story". The subtitle gave it away: I knew immediately that voodoo science was in the offing. I had no idea who Elaine Scarry was, and I had not read her 1998 article on the fall of TWA flight 800. As soon as I had read a few lines of 'Swissair' I knew that the NYRB had made a bad mistake. I therefore contacted Professor Steven Weinberg, Nobel prize physicist at the University of Texas, Austin, a frequent contributor to the NYRB. He answered that no, he had never been consulted on the publication of Ms. Scarry's article. My next step was to write to Mr. Silvers, expressing my displeasure. Here is an excerpt of my letter: "Publication of fanciful articles such as 'Swissair 111, TWA 800, and Electromagnetic Interference ' can only cause serious problems among a population which is only too eager to confuse science fiction with reality, and which, as a result, will have yet additional reasons to fear air travel and government incompetence. But not content with disseminating incorrect information, Ms. Scarry announces a sequel to 'Swissair 111'. Heaven forbid; the New York Review of Books should not be in the business of publishing fiction of Bermuda Triangle variety. " Not surprisingly, Mr. Silvers was not too happy with my comments, which, in a letter to me (Sept. 2000), he denounced as "inappropriate". To refute my claim that the Scarry article had been inadequately reviewed, he sent me by fax the first page of the NASA report referred to above, as proof of the reality of XEMI, and also stated that he had contacted several experts who had given him the go-ahead, such as Dr. D. V. Giri, a specialist private consultant in the field of EMI. What a curious reply: the NASA report in question had precisely refuted the XEMI claim in the case of the fall of TWA 800, and Dr. Giri is mentioned in Professor Scarry's 1998 article in this passage [1]: "Dr. Giri, who does not see electromagnetic interference as a likely cause of the crash, nevertheless, in a comment for the New York Review on a draft of this article, gave the following five reasons why the possibility should be the subject of an inquiry: […]" (my emphasis). If Mr. Silvers had wanted to convince me of the pertinence of EMI in the TWA and Swissair accidents, he could not have picked worse examples!

For enlightenment, I contacted Dr. Giri by phone, and he indeed believed that it was a good idea to make people aware of the potential dangers of EMI, his own field of expertise. But when I asked his opinion of the specific Scarry scenario, he replied that it was "highly unlikely". I then contacted a colleague and collaborator of Dr. Giri, Dr. C. E. Baum from the US Air Force Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, NM who had spoken to Mr. Silvers by phone at the time of publication the TWA article. I asked him his opinion of the Scarry mechanism; "Not credible" he affirmed. He also added that he had mentioned to Mr. Silvers that the XEMI scenario was highly improbable. Apparently, the editor then asked "but is it impossible", "well no, not strictly". Of course, an expert will never say that something is impossible; but is that sufficient recommendation for publication in as distinguished a magazine as the NYRB? The reported conversation is very reminiscent of certain well-known courtroom tactics:

- Attorney to expert witness: "What do you think of the suggestion?"

- Expert witness: "Highly unlikely."

- Attorney: "But is it impossible?"

- Witness: "Well, no but …"

- Attorney: "No further questions, your Honor!"

That courtroom ploy often suffices to acquit guilty defendants. Did Mr. Silvers also contact experts for the articles published in the year 2000? He never replied to my question. Obviously, the NYRB editor saw only what he wanted to see, heard only what he wanted to hear. I can well understand that specialist in the general field of EMI would like to see more work being carried out in their discipline; I just wish that these two learned scientists had been a bit more forthright in telling the editor of the NYRB that Ms. Scarry was barking up the wrong tree. This sad story illustrates that when a prestigious magazine such as the New York Review of Books — which calls itself "the premier literary intellectual magazine in the English language [16] — tackles technical subjects without appropriate scientific guidance, it does no better than a checkout counter tabloid. The NYRB also appears not to tolerate criticism gladly: my first comment to the Editor, just after publication of the Scarry Swissair article [2], was rejected, my longer piece after publication of the EgyptAir article was not even acknowledged, and up until now (Feb. 2001), four months later, not one letter of criticism has appeared in the pages of the magazine.

Pertinence of the Scarry articles

Some have argued that the NYRB Scarry articles served a useful purpose by enhancing awareness of the dangers of external electromagnetic field interference, and forcing the federal government to take appropriate action. I disagree. Yes, the military do have a tendency to hide behind the cloak of National Security, usually more by inertia than malice, and yes, it would be a good idea to have them share some of their classified data with civilian authorities. But one must specify carefully what one means by external electromagnetic interference. Upon casual reading, one may get the impression that Professor Elaine Scarry has discovered a new phenomenon (XEMI) that either the government and the airlines either did not know about, or were carefully keeping hidden from the public through a vast military-industrial conspiracy. Not so: the phenomenon of electromagnetic interference is one that has been studied for a very long time, and is still being investigated, increasingly so. These studies mostly concern either disruption of radio transmission (one benign form of which is ordinary radio "static") or, more seriously and requiring much more power, breakdown of on-board computers controlling aircraft control. In the latter case, backup computers will take over, or the pilots themselves can override the electronics and fly the craft manually. Yet this is not what Ms. Scarry in her three papers relating to the TWA, Swissair, EgyptAir crashes is claiming; she is hypothesizing direct destruction of material by electromagnetic waves transmitted externally from distances of tens, even hundreds of miles. It is safe to state, I think, that such a mechanism is strictly impossible. Hence, I do not see how she can be given credit for alerting the public and the government for proposing causes for airline catastrophes which violate elementary laws of electromagnetism. Had she either written serious papers, well argued and rational in their conclusions, and had pointed out real dangers, such as, for example the very real possibility of aging, or poor design, or lack of maintenance of electrical circuits, or questioned the mental state of some pilots, she would have done us all a real service, but would not have seen her admonitions published in a literary magazine. In other words, her notoriety has resulted almost entirely on the fact that her wild suppositions were patently absurd. The resulting outcry may have pressured NASA into a hasty politically-driven investigation; but that is precisely the trouble, the NASA study must now be repeated at a more leisurely pace, in a more thorough and realistic manner.

So, Elaine Scarry's articles may have helped overcome some inertia on the part of the NASA and the NTSB, which is a good thing, though for the wrong reason. But the publication of those articles has also done much harm. First of all, Professor Scarry, the New York Review of Books and its editor have covered themselves with ridicule. Follow-up articles in large-circulation newspapers have not helped matters, on the contrary. For example, Mr. Simon Jenkins of the London Times is now agitating the specter of "Government conspiracy" [18] and Ms. Emily Eakin of the New York Times Magazine [7], thanks to her rather sympathetic but uncritical article, has provoked irate letters in rejoinder [18, 19].

Conclusion

In conclusion, the unfortunate publication of Elaine Scarry's voodoo science in the New York Review of Books illustrates all too well what happens when a person with no scientific training tackles technical subjects. It is very hard for literary persons to realize that an incorrect premise suffices to negate everything that follows, no matter how many anecdotes are narrated, how many footnotes are used, how many coincidences are reported. In the present instance, ignorance of basic laws of electromagnetism condemns all of these efforts to the dustbin. In literature, there may exist redeeming features; in science there are none.

Of course, it may be argued that, with hindsight, it is easy enough to find fault with Elaine Scarry's XEMI hypothesis, but no: that scenario could have been dismissed before she penned the first words of her TWA article. Moreover, Ms. Scarry's second (Swissair) and third (EgyptAir) papers were published after the NASA report in question had been made available to the public, and after the suicide interpretation had been leaked to the press. Still, elaborate studies by the NASA and other organisms were, I suppose, necessary: the public will not trust scientific common sense and prefers to have the government throw heaps of dollars at a problem in the illusory quest of perfectly accurate numbers. Let us now hope that the forceful statements by the National Safety Transportation Board plus past and future technical reports will definitely lay to rest Professor Scarry's "unfriendly skies" scenario.

Acknowledgments

The author gratefully acknowledges valuable correspondence, either written or oral, with the following persons: Professors David Jackson and Kenneth Gustafson of the University of California, Berkeley, and Peter Ladkin of the University of Bielefeld; Drs. D. V. Giri of Pro-Tech Corp. and C. E. Baum of the Air Force Research Lab., Direct Energy Directorate, Kirtland AFB, several authors of the NASA Report mentioned in the text, Mr. David Evans editor of Air Safety Week and Chairman J. Hall of the National Transportation Safety Board. The ideas expressed here are entirely mine, of course.

 

Footnotes

1. E. Scarry, The Fall of TWA 800: the Possibility of Electromagnetic Interference", New York Review of Books, April 9, 1998.

2. E. Scarry "Swissair 111, TWA 800 and Electromagnetic Interference", New York Review of Books , September 21, 2000.

3. E. Scarry, "The Fall of EgyptAir 990", New York Review of Books, October 5, 2000.

4. E. Scarry, "An Exchange on TWA 800", New York Review of Books, July 16, 1998.

5. J. Hall and E. Scarry, "TWA 800; A Second Exchange", New York Review of Books, August 13, 1998.

6. E. Scarry, "TWA 800 and Electromagnetic Interference: Work Already Completed and Work that Still Needs to be Done", Oct 26, 2000 on New York Review of Books web site: http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/WWWarchdisplay.cgi?20001026001F

7. Emily Eakin, "Professor Scarry Has a Theory", The NY Times Magazine, Sect. 6, p. 78, Nov. 19, 2000.

8. D. Evans, Avionics Magazine, Nov. 2000, pp.55-58

9. Air Safety Week, Sept. 18, 2000, pp. 1-6.

10. J. D. Jackson, Classical Electrodynamics, Ch. 9, J. Wiley & Sons, NY, 1962.

11. P. Ladkin, Preprint

12. R. Park, Voodoo Science; the Road from Foolishness to Fraud, Oxford University Press, 2000.

13. Elaine Scarry is particularly adept at reinterpreting airline pilot conversation. For example, when, during the partial radio blackout of the Swissair 111 flight, one land controller announces to a colleague "Negative joy on Swissair" he is using current avionics jargon, meaning simply "no success". But in footnote #24 of article #2, Scarry writes "In this case what is negated appears to be both the substantive outcome of the undertaking (Swissair 111 was not reached) and the sense of pleasure that would have come with reporting a positive outcome." It is not for nothing that Ms. Scarry is Professor of Aesthetics and Value Theory!

14. J. J. Ealy, T. X. Nguyen, K. L. Dudley, S. A. Scearce, F. B. Beck, M. D. Desphande, and C. R. Cockrell, NASA/TP-2000-209867, March 2000.

15. Air Safety Week, Oct. 23, 2000, pp. 8-9.

16. As claimed, for example, the NYRB advertisement and subscription form on page 79 of the December 2000 issue of Commentaries.

17. S. Jenkins, "Why flying will never be the same again", The London Times, Nov. 3, 2000.

18. K. S. Grey, The New York Times Magazine, Sect, 6, p. 34, Dec. 10, 2000.

As a professional pilot, I am constantly amazed by the absurd theories presented for various airplane crashes. It is bad enough when pseudoscientific types proffer preposterous theories, but now we have an intellectually curious English professor's contentions to deal with. I am certain that for the next several weeks, passengers will be asking me if my aircraft is protected from electro-magnetic impulses. I believe that it is human nature to try to make sense of accidents that are most often senseless. From a pilot's perspective, reading Professor Scarry's list of coincidences reduces me to a combination of laughter and sadness.

19. J. Brokaw and T. Billings, The New York Times Magazine, Sect 6, p.32, Dec. 10, 2000.

As members of Families of EgyptAir 990 Inc., we were reassured to read that, for now, Elaine Scarry, a Harvard English professor, "is through with" electromagnetic interference (Emily Eakin, Nov. 19). Frankly, we wish she had turned to other pursuits before tackling EgyptAir 990, the disaster that claimed our parents and 213 others a year ago.The fatal dive of EgyptAir 990 had no apparent electrical origin. Where the experts see a copilot on a suicide mission, Scarry strains mightily to see numerous effects of EMI. Her perseverance is all the more remarkable in light of an exhaustive investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and NASA, which this summer ruled out EMI as the ignition source in the TWA Flight 800 explosion. For the survivors of those lost, closure is impossible as long as the cause of the crash remains officially undetermined. The NTSB's investigation of EgyptAir 990 has already been prolonged by an intense disinformation campaign by the Egyptian government, which is understandably loath to see the crash attributed to the deliberate action of one of its pilots. Professor Scarry's suppositions serve only the cause of conspiracy theorists and those who would obscure the nature of this unthinkable act.

 



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