Electromagnetic Interference/RADAR

Professor Scarry

Photograph by Joyce Tenneson

In 1998, a Harvard English professor, Elaine Scarry, "came across an article explaining how the United States Air Force had been losing Black Hawk helicopters because of electromagnetic interference (EMI) from military planes. " Instantly, TWA Flight 800 and the mysterious manner in which it had plunged into the Atlantic came to mind. Even though she is an English professor, not a scientist, she began to immerse herself in research on past instances of potential EMI disruption and military planes, and analyzing the types of military crafts near TWA 800 before it fell. She was able to publish an article in the New York Review of Books literary journal, and then, when Swiss Air Flight 111 followed a similar demise to TWA 800, she published a second article as well. The two flights appear to share rather eerie circumstances. Both flights took off on a Wednesday at 8:19 from the same airport. They both flew the same route. Both flights suffered initial trouble twelve to fourteen minutes into the flight. Both flights experienced electrical problems. They both flew during periods of significant military activity. Certain transmitters, based on military craft, were in the area during both flights. That Prof. Scarry would draw a connection is understandable. When EgyptAir 990 crashed after taking off from the same airport, she decided there was a case to be made for EMI as a potential cause. (1)

In her article, The Fall of EgyptAir 990, Prof. Scarry brings up some interesting ideas. She discusses the timing of allowing civilian aircraft to pass through military zones when they are not in use. Apparently, the military zone EgyptAir 990 flew through that night, W-105, had only been clear for civilian craft for fifteen minutes before it was allowed to "short cut" straight to its next map point. The only way for the military controllers to know about a civilian craft is if its flight plan is logged in the civilian computer. Scarry demonstrates that it is perhaps routine that flight plans sometimes are handled by voice and withheld from the main computer, to be entered in at a later point. This weakness is potentially worthy of inspection, if purely from a flight safety perspective. (3)


Many of Scarry's other claims and critiques, however, are more hypothetical in nature. She pours through the research and finds instances where different scenarios "could" happen, but does little to explain how it is actually technically possible. Thus it is interesting to recognize the possibility that EMI could disconnect a plane's autopilot, but how would it cause an explosion, as in the case of TWA? Or in the case of EgyptAir 990, how would EMI specifically go about disconnecting the autopilot, jamming the rear elevators downward, and shutting off the engines? (2)

Prof. Scarry does provide the only attempt I came across to explain a rational cause for Batouti to shut down the engines near the end of the first dive of flight 990. In footnote #36 she provides two examples of previous crashes in which, thinking a collision with the ground imminent, the pilots shut down the engines in order to lessen the probability of fire damage, and thus save lives. There is probably some truth to this idea. However, the engines were shut down when EgyptAir 990 still had more than 16,000 feet of elevation. Would they really have given up hope of recovery at that elevation? And further, Scarry avoids mention of this detail, but I do not think her two examples of previous incidents occurred over water, if that makes a difference.(3)

Didier de Fontaine, a professor of Materials Science at Berkeley, took Ms. Scarry to task for her literary embelishments and lack of technical validation. In his article, Concerning the Fall of TWA 800, Swissair 111 and EgyptAir 990; The Unfriendly Skies Scenario, Fontaine presents a well formulated critique of Scarry's three articles. He illuminates valid points based on science, such as Scarry's general vagueness and lack of knowledge about the type of radiation she is discussing, and for having an "I'll let the scientists figure that part out" attitude. Also, he mentions the monetary costs of such unfounded speculation, citing the "power lines cause cancer" scare that produced total costs in the range of $25 billion. (2) This is apropos given that when she presented her findings to NTSB chairman, James Hall, "the agency eventually allocated several hundred thousand dollars for fresh research into EMI" (1)


This question of the function of conspiracy theorizing as societal benefit versus conservation of resources is one that is not necessarily so poignant for other conspiracy theories, such as TWA 800, as it is for of EgyptAir 990. Even if we are content with believing in the NTSB's assertion that there was nothing more cryptic than pilot suicide/mass murder, we should still be able to find purpose and relevance in the various conspiracy theories about EgyptAir 990 that have evolved. Conspiracies do exist. Agencies within the government and outside it do get manipulated. It is understandable, then, that we should appreciate the investigation and scrutiny of the public record in a way that enhances the pursuance of truth. One of the major benefits of conspiracy theorizing is the tendency to "inquire and imagine." (4) But perhaps we should consider Anthony Summers' line about conspiracy theories versus theories about conspiracies, and make the distinction. Conspiracy theorizing is an abstraction. It is what entertains the post modernists. As Alasdair Spark of The Center For Conspiracy Culture writes:

Already, before the events of the late 1980s, it was a trope of post modern theory (from whichever base one chooses) to characterize late capitalist culture as defined by fragmentation, incoherence, and a resistance to meta-narratives; this study will contend that in the conspiratorial imagination's willingness to plot connections and to connect plots, the opposite can be seen, and that conspiracy constitutes a postmodern (a hyperreal) mode of communication and therefore a popular attempt to re-cohere and re-determine meaning by transforming 'secret' information into common folk knowledge. (4)

Conspiracy theory becomes the victim of an anthropological focus. A "conspiracy channel" that one can tap into for ethnological fodder. As Spark explains, "Examining conspiracy provides a valuable and overlooked means of understanding popular perceptions of the contemporary situation." It is a mental/social exercise? Conspiracy theories are what Robin Ramsey calls "just the gossip of the global village." (6) But what damage does this global gossip do to theories about conspiracy? There are real conspiracies that require the same ability to "inquire and imagine" in order to be uncovered as conspiracy theories do to be dreamt up, but theories about conspiracy must have empiricism at their base. This being said, a reliance on empiricism can now become an asset or a liability. Quality and amount of data appear to have an inverse relationship. Now that communication lines have been "globalized", and the power of creation is as easy as what I am doing right now, how does one deal with the necessity for empiricism in studying theories about conspiracy? With the acceleration of computers and digital realities, it appears that the epistemological paradigm used to categorize information requires careful consideration. Where the two forms of conspiracy study interact is affective for both groups. They will continue to feed off each other. Real theories about conspiracies sparking imaginations to develop socially meaningful conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theories in turn allowing a space to "inquire and imagine" in a way that is necessary to uncover conspiracies and discover the truth. Perhaps in this way, conspiracy culture contributes something to the pursuit of accurate knowledge. But often, that benefit does not come without a cost. In the case of EgyptAir 990, there are points of view that suggest Egypt has used this open system against itself, and for the political gain of Egypt. (5) If this is the case, it is not much of a positive. The NTSB and Boeing have spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours of labor pursuing Egypt's continual claims. Maybe science is the ultimate benefactor in this equation, but even if it's not, the ability to have an open system, one that can pose questions on every level, is a characteristic that we as a society can not afford to be without.



1) http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20001119mag-scarry.html
2) http://www.mse.berkeley.edu/faculty/defontaine/CommentaryIII.html
3) http://www.nybooks.com/articles/13830
4) http://www.wkac.ac.uk/ccc/content/essay1.htm
5) http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/int2001-11-15.htm
6) http://www.digiweb.com/igeldard/LA/political/conspire.txt
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