Day One Hundred Eighty Four: July 2
This started as a project to take a night picture of one of the many jet aircraft that pass overhead, and ended up leading to some much more complicated thoughts that sometimes bounce around in my head on what we perceive, how, and why.
What is this plane doing? Which way is it going? Is it climbing or descending? The plane looks like it’s climbing from lower right to upper left, but that’s only half right. Instead, the plane is descending, en route to landing at Runway 01R at Dulles International Airport.
I remember following with interest the tragedy of TWA Flight 800, the New York to Paris flight that broke up in mid-air off Long Island near East Moriches, New York. Even though I was 14 at the time, I remember the great sense of loss, and terror that things could have gone so horribly wrong for such a violent midair breakup. Rumors flew that TWA flight 800 was shot down by a missile. Given the very real threat, and the proximity to the Olympic games starting soon in Atlanta, the FBI rapidly commenced its investigation.
Overwhelmed with claims that a missile shot down TWA Flight 800, the FBI enlisted the assistance of the CIA to investigate so-called missile sightings. The CIA interviewed the witnesses who reported they saw a missile to correlate where they were standing when they saw the “missile”, where TWA Flight 800 was, and where the aircraft was when the “missile” hit it. Central to the investigation was whether the reported “missile” was an incendiary climbing or simply burning debris falling.
The 11-page .pdf (here) released by CIA Public Affairs analyzes the fallibility of human perception, human memory, and how easily things like perception can be influenced by others. After exhaustive analysis, the CIA and FBI concluded that the witnesses reporting a “missile” likely saw a fireball and burning wreckage dropping from the fatally-stricken aircraft, and not a missile ascending towards it. As in the photo above, the missile appeared to be climbing as it neared the zenith of the witnesses’ field of view, and not because the so-called missile was actually gaining in altitude.
What do you see in this photo? Is the plane climbing or descending? If someone questioned your judgment, or claimed to see something else entirely, would you think twice?