by Jim Hoffman
first published: October 7, 2004
revised: November 15, 2004
EDITOR'S NOTE 4/4/06:
For a more detailed analysis of the physical evidence of the crash, see:
The Pentagon Attack: What the Physical Evidence Shows
The idea that no 757 crashed at the Pentagon is easily the most controversial and divisive issue among researchers of the 9/11/01 attacks. Effectively promoted since early 2002, this idea has enjoyed an increasing acceptance in the 9/11 Truth Movement, despite its blatant incompatibility with the extensive body of eyewitness evidence that a 757-like twin-engine jetliner flew into the Pentagon and exploded.
Many researchers have ignored or dismissed this eyewitness evidence in favor of a seemingly overwhelming physical evidence case that no 757 crashed at the Pentagon, based on photographs of the crash site. As I show below, however, each of the pieces of evidence adduced in favor of the no-757-crash theory can be reconciled with the crash of a 757.
The controversy over this issue has eclipsed the many documented facts linking the 9/11/01 attacks to insiders. Defenders of the official story have seized on this issue as representative of the gullibility and incompetence of 9/11 "conspiracy theorists."
The Allure of the Unsolved Mystery
History of the Issue
Ignoring the Eyewitness Evidence
The "Physical Evidence" Case
An Opening For Attackers
How the Issue Plays
The Allure of the Unsolved Mystery
The question of what hit the Pentagon has remained a source of intense interest and debate for almost three years now, overshadowing many other issues of the 9/11/01 attack. The controversy has thrived in the evidence vacuum created by official actions in the wake of the attack, which included the following:
Minutes after the attack, the FBI seized from businesses adjacent to the Pentagon videos that likely recorded the event.
On the day of the attack, Pentagon personnel participated in a rapid mop-up of the crime scene, moving and removing evidence before it could be documented.
In the weeks following the attack, authorities controlled the crime scene, destroying or suppressing nearly all the physical evidence inside the building.
This left primarily two kinds of evidence: eyewitness reports consistent with the crash of a 757, and post-crash photographs taken by passers-by showing neither large aircraft debris nor an impact damage pattern expected from such a crash. The ambiguous and seemingly contradictory evidence made the event a kind of Rorschach, spawning many competing theories but offering no basis for definitive conclusions.
The mystery of the attack has lured researchers into endless debates, much to the detriment of public outreach around easily proved issues. Such issues include aspects of the Pentagon attack other than the question of what hit it. For example:
The portion of the Pentagon targeted was mostly unoccupied due to a renovation program.
The attack plane executed an extreme spiral dive maneuver to hit that portion of the building rather than the part housing high-level officials.
The alleged pilot of Flight 77 was not competent to pilot a Cessna, let alone pilot a 757 through a maneuver that may have exceeded the skills of even the best test pilot.
History of the Issue
The Pentagon no-757-crash theory first came to prominence in early 2002 when French author Thierry Meyssan published "The Frightening Fraud," which theorized that a truck bomb was responsible for the damage to the Pentagon, and then "Le Pentagate," which held that the damage was produced by a missile. These well-marketed books sold millions of copies in Europe. Meyssan's analysis is notable for wild inaccuracies in characterizing the damage to the Pentagon's facade. He suggests the impact hole was 15-18 feet in diameter, and that there was no damage on either side of that hole. That description completely ignores the first floor damage, in which walls were punctured over a width of about 90 feet, a fact that is easily determined from analysis of photographs available on the web in early 2002.
Meyssan also states that the piece of hull photographed by Mark Faram does not correspond to any part of a Boeing 757, when in fact it matches the hull just aft of the forward starboard door, as shown by Dick Eastman.
Meyssan's "Le Pentagate" was published shortly after five frames of video from a Pentagon security camera were leaked. Meyssan and other theorists jumped on the fact that the first frame seems to show a much smaller plane than a 757 approaching the Pentagon, without asking if the video frames were authentic. In fact they bear clear signs of forgery.
Meyssan's conclusions were echoed by Gerard Holmgren, who published the lengthy Physical and Mathematical Analysis of the Pentagon Crash in October of 2002. Like Meyssan, Holmgren relied on photographs in which obstructions hide large regions of first-floor damage. Holmgren's unwieldy manifesto-sized analysis was widely embraced by no-757-crash theorists.
The sloppy analysis of Meyssan and certain other Pentagon researchers (such as their reliance on photographs in which jets of fire retardant foam and smoke obscure damaged areas) leaves these researchers, and by association the entire 9/11 Truth Movement, open to attack by detractors.
Other work by skeptics of the 757 crash was far more careful. In mid-2002, an anonymous author produced a detailed damage assessment in an article concluding that the damage was consistent with the crash of a large plane, but not of a 757.
In early 2003 Dick Eastman developed a "two plane" theory, which holds that the damage to the Pentagon was done by a small killer jet, such as an F-16, while Flight 77 merely appeared to crash, clearing the facade behind a pyrotechnic display and overflying the Pentagon in a kind of magician's trick. Eastman was unique among the no-757-crash theorists in at least attempting to accommodate much of the eyewitness evidence.
In September of 2003, I helped to develop a slide presentation which concluded that "whatever struck the Pentagon was not a Boeing 757." This talk, which borrowed from the work of Eric Hufschmid and said anonymous author, further popularized the notion that a 757 was not involved in the attack.
In early 2004, Richard Stanley and Jerry Russell added yet another variation to the mix of no-757-crash theories in The Five-Sided Fantasy Island, advancing a scenario that combines Eastman's Flight 77 overflight theory with the idea that demolition charges were used to produce the damage to the Pentagon.
In late 2004 two new videos promoting no-757-crash theory appeared. Both combine slick production values with highly selective presentations of evidence. In Plane Site, a DVD, advances the no-757-impact along with the Building 6 explosion myth and highly dubious theories that the towers were hit by objects other than Flights 11 and 175. The obvious propagandistic quality of these pieces was one factor in persuading me to re-examine my own endorsement of the no-757-crash theory.
Ignoring the Eyewitness Evidence
Proponents of the no-757-crash theory have tended to minimize the many eyewitness accounts that a 757-like aircraft flew into the Pentagon and exploded. Many simply cherry-pick one or two accounts that seem to indicate a much smaller plane, and ignore the larger body of eyewitness evidence.
This selective presentation of witness accounts is exemplified by a tendency to quote only a single phrase from a single witness: Mike Walter's use of "a cruise missile with wings." In context, it's clear that Walter was only using the cruise missile description metaphorically:
I looked out my window and I saw this plane, this jet, an American Airlines jet, coming. And I thought, 'This doesn't add up, it's really low'. I mean it was like a cruise missile with wings.
Another eyewitness account frequently cited as evidence that the attack plane was not an airliner is that of air traffic controller Danielle O'Brien:
The speed, the maneuverability, the way that he turned, we all thought in the radar room, all of us experienced air-traffic controllers, that that was a military plane.
That the controllers observed a plane being flown in a manner not normal for jetliner does not mean the plane was not a jetliner. Simple calculations show that the spiral dive attack maneuver was well within the capabilities of a Boeing 757. In fact, the body of eyewitness evidence provides almost no support for the no-757 theories, but does indicate that the event involved more than a simple plane crash, such as a sharp detonation wave not explainable by the crash of a jetliner. Once again, such substantial evidence that contradicts the official story has been eclipsed by the no-757-crash theory.
The "Physical Evidence" Case
Many apparent features of the crash that are documented by the photographs of the crash site -- and especially by photos taken before the overhanging section collapsed -- seem to support an overwhelming case against the crash of a 757. These features include the following.
The lawn shows no signs of gouging from a 757's low-hanging engines, despite eyewitness claims that the plane hit the ground before the facade.
The impact hole dimensions are not large enough to accommodate the entire profile of a 757.
The lawn shows almost no signs of crash debris immediately following the crash.
Photos from inside and outside the building during the recovery operation show very little aircraft debris.
Damaged columns remain standing where dense parts of the plane, such as the starboard engine, would have hit.
Unscored limestone and unbroken windows are visible in areas of the facade where the outer wings and vertical tail section of a 757 would have hit.
There are obstacles in the plane's alleged flight path, such as cable spools.
This list is far from exhaustive. Many other features are often cited as evidence against a 757 crash, such as the positions of downed lamp-posts, the orientation of the damaged generator, and the position and shape of the C-ring punch-out hole. The number of no-757-crash arguments based on these features, and the logical independence of many of them, seem to many to constitute an overwhelming cumulative case against the crash of a 757. Whereas a deductive case is only as strong as its weakest argument, a cumulative case is as strong as the sum of its arguments. However, a cumulative case may appear strong without actually being so if it is composed entirely of arguments that evaporate under scrutiny.
Let's examine four of the more persuasive arguments, which I've given the following labels:
The missing wings and tail
The vanishing jetliner
The incorrect impact imprint
The obstacle dodge
The Missing Wings and Tail
This argument, based on features 1, 2, and 3, holds that since the outer expanses of the wings and most of the vertical tail section of a 757 could not have fit through the facade's impact punctures, they should have been visible in the post-crash photographs of the building's exterior.
The argument makes the error of assuming that large pieces of the wings and tail should have remained intact. A crash study suggests that the over-300-mph impact of a jetliner with the Pentagon's heavy masonry facade would have reduced the entire aircraft -- and certainly its relatively light wings and tail -- to confetti.
Another error in this argument is its implicit assumption that the photographs of the Pentagon's lawn show it to be debris-free. In fact, the photographs have pronounced foreshortening of regions near the building, which, together with variations in the terrain, may hide significant debris fields.
The Vanishing Jetliner
This argument, based on features 3 and 4, holds that since there are no photographs showing large aircraft debris at the Pentagon, no jetliner could have crashed there. Recognizable pieces that were photographed, such as landing gear and engine parts, are few enough that they could have been planted.
This argument makes the error of the negative proof: the lack of evidence showing something's existence is taken as proof of its non-existence. The seeming disappearance of the 80-ton plane becomes much less mysterious when one considers two facts.
As noted above, in similar crashes, the entire aircraft is converted to small confetti, most of which would be unrecognizable.
There are few publicly available photographs of the interior of the building shortly after the crash. FEMA's investigative team was not allowed on the site until after all the debris had been removed.
The Incorrect Impact Imprint
This argument, based on features 5 and 6, holds that, since there is no impact imprint of a 757 on the Pentagon's facade, no such plane could have crashed there. In a crash at such a speed (over 300 mph) the wings and tail had too much momentum to deviate much from their trajectory even as the plane crashed into the facade. Therefore, even these relatively light parts should have at least scored the facade's rather soft limestone facing, and perhaps broken windows.
Even admitting that there are uncertainties about just how much damage the wing ends and tail of a 757 should have done to the Pentagon's facade, this argument is difficult to reconcile with the simple crash of a 757 -- at least of an intact 757. However, if the wing ends and tail were destroyed before impact, they might not have left impact impressions. That possibility is explored in the Unexamined Explanations section.
The Obstacle Dodge
This argument, based on feature 7, holds that the flightpath determined by downed light poles and eyewitness accounts takes the plane too low to have cleared obstacles near the building, such as several cable spools.
The spool that appears most problematic for the plane's supposed flightpath is the large upright one nearest the building. In most photographs it appears to be just a few feet from the building. However, appearances are deceiving given the foreshortening in the photographs. One article supporting the no-757-crash theory estimates that the large spool is about 28 feet from the facade. It also states that the diameter of the spool is 6 feet, 6 inches.
Given those coordinates and dimensions, and assuming the plane's trajectory was such that it was losing one foot of altitude for every ten feet of distance traveled, then the bottom of the plane's fuselage could have cleared the spool by a foot and crashed into the facade at an elevation of five feet, placing the bottoms of the engines at ground level. Contentions that turbulence from such a near miss would have toppled the spool are difficult to evaluate without knowing the weight of the spool, whether it was secured to the ground, and whether the spools rolled following the crash.
The last two arguments in the previous section illustrate just how easy it is to accept a pre-conceived conclusion from evidence while failing to consider other equally plausible explanations. I became convinced that the attack plane was not a 757 based primarily on those two arguments, and only later re-evaluated my conclusions in light of other possibilities.
An alternative explanation for the incorrect impact imprint consistent with the crash of a 757 was proposed by French researcher Eric Bart. He suggests that the jetliner was progressively shredded by explosives starting just as its nose was beginning to impact the wall. This theory explains the lack of impact impressions of the jetliner's extremities, since they would have been reduced to confetti before impact. It also accounts for the large punctures in the facade, since the remains of the plane's heaviest portions could have retained enough momentum to breach the walls and enter the building.
Bart's theory may sound far-fetched, and some detractors have compared it to the aggressively promoted idea that the South Tower was hit by a pod-equipped cargo jet that fired a missile just before impact. However, the comparison is not deserved. Whereas the pod-plane idea is based on imaginative interpretations of artifacts in blurry video images, Bart's theory reconciles the lack of imprint of the tail and wing ends with the overwhelming eyewitness evidence that a jetliner flew into the Pentagon and exploded. Several eyewitnesses even recalled details that seem to be explainable only by the plane being shredded before impact.
Bart's theory is consistent with the crash of Flight 77 at the Pentagon, but not with the official story that it was hijacked by Muslim terrorists, since it assumes the plane was prepared prior to the attack.
Other researchers, such as Stanley and Russell, have proposed that the Pentagon attack was engineered to make it appear that a 757 crashed when none had. Bart's theory reverses this, suggesting that the crash of a 757 was engineered to make it appear that no such plane had crashed.
The apparent motive for such a deception will likely escape 9/11 skeptics on both sides of the controversy about what hit the Pentagon. Most adherents to no-757-crash theories have ignored Bart's theory and the body of eyewitness evidence supporting it. Most opponents of no-757-crash theories have not looked closely enough at the impact damage pattern to see a problem reconciling it with the simple crash of a 757. This is exactly the conflict that the engineered crash may have been designed to create. Experts at psychological operations, the perpetrators could have anticipated that skeptics would divide into two groups: those persuaded by eyewitness evidence that a 757 had crashed, and those persuaded by physical evidence that one had not. The ongoing controversy could then be exploited by the perpetrators to several ends:
to keep the skeptics divided
to divert skeptics' resources from other more productive lines of inquiry
to provide a bizarre-sounding theory with which to tar the entire 9/11 Truth Movement
If you accept the premise that the crash of a 757 was engineered to create seemingly contradictory bodies of evidence in order to seed truth-obfuscating conflicts, it is easy to explain crash-site anomalies beyond the facade impact imprint. For example, the spool that is arguably a problem for the plane's approach could have been stood up immediately after the crash to bolster the anticipated no-757-crash theory. While this may seem far-fetched, it is much less far-fetched than suppositions of no-757-crash theorists, such as that the downing of the highway lamp-posts was engineered independent of the attack plane.
In 2004 two videos promoting the no-757-crash theory were released: the Pentagon Strike Flash animation by Darren Williams, and the In Plane Site DVD by David von Kleist. While different in format, both share the following characteristics:
Both cherry-pick and de-contextualize eyewitness statements while ignoring the eyewitness consensus that a jetliner crashed.
Both advance several of the faulty interpretations of photographic evidence that I debunk in the Pentagon Attack Errors section of 911review.com.
Both use a kind of shock-and-awe presentation style to engage people emotionally rather than critically.
Whereas the much shorter Pentagon Strike functions primarily by selective and misleading presentation of evidence, In Plane Site presents patently ludicrous claims as fact. For example, von Kleist quotes a supposed expert from the Environmental Assessment Association as saying:
Looking at the total weight of this aircraft in conjunction with its velocity, the Pentagon should have been reduced to the thickness of a pancake.
The logical fallacies, misrepresentations of evidence, and propagandistic style of In Plane Site and Pentagon Strike contrast with a far more rational approach by other videos, websites, and books by 9/11 skeptics that use physical evidence to refute elements of the official story. Yet the no-757-crash videos have enjoyed a wider exposure than the other far more credible efforts. Snopes.com, an urban-legend debunking website, provides four links to the Pentagon strike animation on its Hunt the Boeing! page. Why are apologists for the official story promoting this video (if in a backhanded way)? Perhaps because the no-757-crash theory is more effective at bolstering the official story than undermining it.
An Opening For Attackers
Before 2004, the mainstream and alternative media were virtually free of any mention of the existence of a community of skeptics challenging the core tenets of official story of '9/11'. While there were numerous reports of warnings of the attacks, there was only minimal coverage of the spectacular failures of the air defense network, and there was virtually no mention of the physical evidence of the demolition of Building 7 and the Twin Towers. That changed on May 26, 2004, when Amy Goodman interviewed David Ray Griffin on Democracy Now about his book The New Pearl Harbor on the show The New Pearl Harbor: A Debate On A New Book That Alleges The Bush Administration Was Behind The 9/11 Attacks. Although Griffin mentions an array of compelling evidence that the attack was an inside job, the majority of the interview revolves around the issue of what hit the Pentagon, as Chip Berlet, whom Goodman invited on the program to debate Griffin, zeroes in on the weakest part of The New Pearl Harbor. As a result, almost no time is spent discussing the much stronger parts of Griffin's argument.
On September 13, The Nation magazine published Executive Secrecy: Conspiracy or Failure? by CIA agent Robert Baer. Baer ridicules "conspiracy theories" that 9/11/01 was an inside job, suggesting that this "monstrous proposition" and Griffin's choice to "recycle some of the wilder conspiracy theories" is driven by the evasions and lies of the Bush administration. First on Baer's list of these wilder theories is "that the Pentagon was hit by a missile rather than by American Airlines Flight 77."
On October 7, The Washington Post published Conspiracy Theories Flourish on the Internet, which describes Pentagon Strike and its popularization in some detail, and then uses it to deride 9/11 "conspiracy theories." The article makes no mention of other areas of research by skeptics of the official story. Instead, it implies that the idea that "something other than a commercial airliner hit the Pentagon" is the only proposition advanced by skeptics to challenge the official story.
On November 8, The New York Times published A Hidden Story Behind Sept. 11? One Man's Ad Campaign Says So, to describe the campaign of millionaire Jimmy Walter to publicize skepticism about the official story of '9/11'. The second sentence of the article introduces Walter's suggestion that "no plane flew into the Pentagon," and the third sentence that Building 7 was "detonated from within." While the striking similarity of the implosion of Building 7 to other building implosions produced by controlled demolition is one of the most compelling pieces of physical evidence that the 9/11/01 attack was an inside job, the juxtaposition of the idea that Building 7 was detonated next to the idea that no plane crashed into the Pentagon is an effective tool for discrediting the former. The New York Times article provides no links to the video evidence of the demolition of Building 7, such as that on wtc7.net, but it gives an explanation for the collapse by fire science professor Glenn P. Corbett -- an explanation that people who have not seen the videos are likely to accept.
On November 10, Air America broadcast a segment featuring David Von Kleist, producer of In Plane Site, which promoted the two central memes of his video: the Pentagon no-757-crash idea and the South Tower pod-plane idea. Because the no-757-crash idea is taken seriously by a substantial portion of serious 9/11 researchers -- an acceptance not shared by the pod-plane idea -- disinformationists can use the Pentagon no-jetliner idea to leverage the more ridiculous WTC crash theories, such as pod-planes, missile attacks, holograms, etc.
With these and other articles and broadcasts, millions of people are being introduced to the idea that the attack was an inside job via theories that have no support in evidence, sound ludicrous, and are easily discredited. Unfortunately, first impressions are difficult to reverse.
How the Issue Plays
I frequently encounter the opinion that, regardless of the errors underlying the Pentagon no-757-crash theory, its recent popularization and press attention can only be helpful to the cause of truth exposure because it gets more people to question the official story and explore evidence contradicting other facets of that story. Indeed, many active skeptics were introduced to the issue through material on the Pentagon crash.
However, it is more likely that the prominence of the no-757-crash theory will damage the cause, particularly as it reaches a wider audience less inclined to research the issue. People introduced to 9/11 skepticism through the no-757-crash theory will either be stimulated to examine evidence that the attack was an inside job, or will continue to ignore such ideas as the delusions of conspiracy theorists. The vast majority of such people will likely fall into the second group for several reasons.
The mainstream press is casting the no-757-crash theory as a loony construct of conspiracy theorists, and representative of all 9/11 skepticism.
The theory sounds ludicrous to most people who encounter it for the first time.
The videos promoting it use faulty analysis and manipulative techniques that will alienate the discerning viewer.
The popular videos and supporting websites are dead-ends, providing no links to responsible 9/11 research sites.
My conclusion is borne out by the evidence. According to the Washington Post article, millions of people have viewed Pentagon Strike. Yet the visits to investigative websites, such as those listed on 911truth.org, have not skyrocketed into hundreds of thousands of visits per day.
Some have suggested that, regardless of the relative factual merits, similar dynamics would be in play if the Twin Towers' demolition was being promoted with the same vigor as the Pentagon no-757-crash theory. Isn't the idea that the Twin Towers were demolished with explosives as incredible as the idea that no jetliner crashed at the Pentagon? Yes and no. There is a huge psychological barrier to accepting the conclusion that controlled demolition brought down the towers, and that conclusion supposes a conspiracy far beyond the 19 hijackers. However, there are fundamental qualitative differences.
The no-757-crash theory supposes that something asserted by the official story and witnessed by hundreds of people (the crash of a jetliner) didn't happen; whereas the towers' demolition supposes that something beyond the official story and supported by witness accounts (explosive detonations) did happen. Using the JFK assassination as an analogy, the no-757-crash theory is like saying that Kennedy was not shot at all, whereas the towers' demolition is like saying that there were additional gunmen beyond Lee Harvey Oswald.
The no-757-crash theory requires accounting for a missing Flight 77 and the fates of its passengers and crew; whereas the towers' demolition requires no additional theories to account for the fates of Flights 11 and 175.
Millions of people are aware, if subconsciously, of evidence of the demolition of the Twin Towers, such as the fine dust that blanketed lower Manhattan, and the explosive nature of the collapses; whereas no one has direct evidence that something other than a 757 crashed into the Pentagon. The lack of photographic evidence that a 757 crashed into the Pentagon should not be construed as evidence that none did.
The idea that no 757-sized airliner crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11/01 is attractive to many skeptics because it contradicts a fundamental tenet of the official story, is supported by common-sense interpretations of photographs of the crash scene, and provides an explanation for the suspicious lack of physical evidence supporting the official account. Additionally, there is a substantial body of literature by no-757-crash theorists that appears to thoroughly examine the evidence. The complexity of some of this analysis may discourage other skeptics from evaluating the evidence for themselves.
As I show in this essay, many common errors in no-757-crash theories are easily exposed. Most of the no-757-crash arguments evaporate when scrutinized with attention to empirical data about the behavior of airframes in high-speed crashes, and the geometry of the Pentagon crash scene and vantage points of post-crash photographs. The remaining arguments are easily disposed of by assuming the crash was engineered, consistent with the presumed motives of the perpetrators to discredit the skeptics. Conversely, the abundant eyewitness accounts provide strong evidence for the crash of a 757 or similar aircraft.
In recent high-profile attacks on the work of 9/11 skeptics, defenders of the official story have consistently focused on the no-757-crash theory as indicative of the gullibility and incompetence of the 9/11 "conspiracy theorists." Researchers including myself have contributed to this vulnerability by endorsing this theory without either weighing all the available evidence (such as the eyewitness accounts) or considering less obvious interpretations for the paucity of physical evidence of a 757 crash. The Pentagon crash is an intriguing area of research because of its many unresolved mysteries. The promotion of theories about what hit the Pentagon in highly visible media do not advance that research but instead provide our detractors with ammunition with which to discredit us, and eclipse easily established and highly incriminating facts such as where the Pentagon was hit, the astounding failures to defend the 9/11 targets, and the obvious controlled demolition of Building 7.