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Missile An Unlikely Cause of TWA Plane Crash, Says Army

By Bradley Graham
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Amid speculation that a shoulder-fired missile may have downed TWA Flight 800 last week, the Army has run computer simulations to determine whether a U.S.-made Stinger or equivalent weapon could have hit the plane and concluded it was possible but not likely, defense officials said yesterday.

A Stinger fired from ocean waters beneath the 747 jumbo jet could have reached the aircraft, which had just climbed above 13,000 feet when it exploded 10 miles off the New York coast. But such a scenario would have pushed the missile's limits in effective range (2.4 miles) and altitude (11,000 feet).

"Could a Stinger have done it? That's not an easy-to-answer question," said Lt. Col. Mike Monnett, an Army spokesman. "While not directed to do so, the Army's Missile Command did some computer modeling, crunched all the data and determined it was not outside the realm of possibility, but it's also not likely."

Investigators have expressed skepticism that a missile struck the TWA plane. But they continue to cite such a possibility, given numerous witnesses who have reported seeing something streak toward the aircraft instants before it burst into flames.

Stingers carry infrared guidance systems that zero in on aircraft engines or other heat sources. Direct hits on military planes often have resulted not in the kind of fiery explosion seen when the TWA flight blew up, but rather in the noncombustive loss of an engine or wing, followed by the aircraft's free fall.

Nonetheless, some combat aircraft have been known to explode in midair when hit by a shoulder-fired missile, and commercial airliners may be even more prone to do so because they are not hardened for battle like military planes.

"If a missile hit a wing full of aviation fuel," Monnet said, "you'd have the fuel mixing with the atmosphere, which could produce an explosion."

Because aiming the Stinger requires some steadiness, defense officials said a water launch would need a rather large, stable platform, something more than a small boat.

The Army first fielded the Stinger in 1982, and the missile is available in 16 other countries, according to Pentagon figures. The Soviet Union produced a similar missile, the SA-14, also now in use around the world.

Two later Soviet models, the SA-16 and SA-18, have longer ranges (3 miles) and are not impeded as easily as the SA-14 by flares or metallic chaff. Their availability outside Russia is limited, defense officials said.

"With respect to how easy it is to use a shoulder-guided weapon, that's a matter of range to the target. During the very low altitude, takeoff phase, IR-guided (heat-seeking) SAMS (surface-to-air missiles) would be effective," Paul Kaminski, the Pentagon's undersecretary for acquisition, told reporters Tuesday.