One of the unanswered mysteries about TWA 841 concerns the altitude the plane reached before the recovery. The official record has always been that the plane recovered at approximately 4,900 feet. The last altitude shown by radar was 4,900 feet. The flight data recorder, which you can view for yourself in the post garbage in garbage out has missing data points. If you follow the altitude trace it disappears off the chart.
Hoot claims that they had actually recovered within a hundred feet or so from the ground. You can’t get much closer than that. Hoot says that he has a distinct memory of entering a fog bank and catching a glimpse of large John Deer cranes, trucks, and other heavy equipment together in a single lot. He believes the location was a storage lot for vehicles used in road repair or snow removal. He also claims that he was low enough to see a halogen light glowing in the fog above him as he pulled out of the dive.
In several of Hoot’s depositions and testimony for the civil trial he said that he didn’t know at what altitude he recovered at. He never once said anything to anyone that he was low enough to see vehicles on the ground. When asked why he never mentioned this to any of the investigators, he says he didn’t want to give the investigators another discrepancy to deal with since everyone was claiming that the recovery was at five thousand feet.
In his first deposition just eight days after the incident, Hoot said that he entered a low cloud deck and that he “couldn’t tell how close we were to the ground.”
That night in April 1979 was an unusually cold one. A cold air mass had descended down from Canada and blanked much of the upper Midwest. It was cold enough for it to snow. There was snow on the ground in Saginaw and Detroit. The ground, however, was warm. This was early spring. The visibility was poor. Ground fog was present. Ground fog usually is from the surface to a just a couple hundred feet above the ground. It was clear above this ground fog except for a broken layer at around 25,000 feet. That’s the first clue that perhaps Hoot did get much lower than 4,900 feet. There wouldn’t have been ground fog at 5,000 feet.
Then we have the report from Randall Deshano who heard the plane that night. He said it was so loud that he immediately went to the window expecting to see a crashed airplane in his back yard. The debris field was located a mile from his house. You can listen to Randall in the post The scene of the crime. Can a plane recovering at 5,000 feet be so loud that it would alarm someone on the ground?
Recently I interviewed the Cleveland Center controller who was working that night. His name is Anthony Mealy. Anthony explained to me that the center radar that reported the 4,900 foot altitude could not see much below that altitude. There was a line-of-site limitation in that part of the radar coverage. He remembers that after he had been alerted that there was an emergency aircraft he could not find it on his radar. The first time he spotted TWA 841 was as it was climbing through about 4,300 feet. So if the plane was climbing through 4,300 feet it certainly had to have bottomed out lower than that. The elevation in that area is around 670 feet. Anthony estimates that the plane got as low as 2,000 feet MSL, which would have put the recovery at around 1,300 feet from the ground. But that is just a best guess.
You can listen to Anthony’s account in the video below.
Update: After talking over the details with Anthony of what he saw on radar and when, it is more likely that he saw the plane climbing through 4,300 feet after it had already climbed up to ten thousand and then descended back down as Hoot struggled to control the plane. The facts as he described them don’t support the idea that he first spotted the plane as it was pulling out of the original dive. There still is the line-of-site problem and the other contradictory evidence to sort out.