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FAA: March missile sightings by jets were Navy test

missile

4 passenger planes in Northeast saw rocket

April 10, 1997
Web posted at: 9:36 p.m. EDT (0136 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Federal Aviation Administration now believes that a missile sighted by several commercial airline pilots flying over the northeastern United States on March 17 was actually part of a Navy test off the coast of Florida.

The National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation after four separate airline crews from three different airlines all reported seeing a rocket or missile that night.

Navy officials now say two Trident missiles were fired from a submarine off the east coast of Florida at almost exactly the same time as the pilots began reporting missile sightings nearly 2,000 miles away. The rockets landed harmlessly in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa and did not pass anywhere near U.S. commercial air space.

The missile sightings come amidst persistent -- and, investigators say, unfounded -- speculation that a military missile test gone awry may have brought down TWA Flight 800. The 747 jet crashed July 17 in the Atlantic Ocean off New York's Long Island coast, killing all 230 people aboard.

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"It, again, stretches the imagination to think that the military would be involved in any kind of a missile test around New York City," said Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman.

Investigators test missile strike theory in Arizona

But while investigators have discounted the scenario that the TWA disaster was the result of a military accident, they have refused to rule out the possibility that a missile from some other source could have brought down the plane.

As recently as two weeks ago, the FBI and NTSB conducted tests in which real missiles were fired into retired military airplanes to collect information about how a missile hit would damage an airplane.

The tests were conducted at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona. Investigators refused to let cameras in to film the event.

The NTSB also plans to compare sounds from those Arizona missile tests to a mysterious noise heard at the end of Flight 800's cockpit voice recorder to see if they match.

Military: Missiles tested only in remote areas

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U.S. military officials continue to insist that missile tests pose no danger to civil aviation.

The United States tests missiles at bases that are either near remote desert areas, such as White Sands, New Mexico, or along coasts where missiles can be fired over open ocean and from ships at sea, such as Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

Tests are never conducted over populated areas or in busy commercial air corridors. And missiles are designed to self-destruct in the event a test goes awry.

"There is a lot of military activity and a lot of testing of missiles," says retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll. "But it's only done from approved locations. It's done with full notification to all concerned, and it's done under real time surveillance.

"I think that it is very clear we're not shooting an arrow into the air, and it's coming down to Earth we know not where. That's not the way business is done."

Indeed, the FAA says it is not aware of any U.S. military missile ever straying from restricted airspace, nor has the Pentagon ever failed to give proper notice of a test.

Correspondents Jamie McIntyre and Christine Negroni and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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