Readers respond to pilot Patrick Smith's dissection of the Wellstone conspiracy theories. Plus: PayPal and e-gold.

By Salon Staff
Published November 19, 2002 10:30PM (UTC)
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[Read the column by Patrick Smith.]

From the reported weather conditions, I knew right away that Senator Wellstone's death was accidental. But given who he was and when he died, I thought, "If life were a novel, this could only have been an assassination."

Life is not only stranger than fiction; it is also more ironic.

-- Mary L. Fitzhugh

Maybe Paul Wellstone was murdered; maybe he wasn't. But here's what we know for sure: On the day he received the Minnesota VFW endorsement, Republican radio was beating the war drums loudly and fiercely enough against him to rouse any of their sleeper agents to lethal action.

-- Dan Riley

Thank you for your insightful analysis. I tend toward conspiracy theories myself, but in this case, I find a greater level of relief than disappointment. You've helped open my mind to other possibilities, and I am appreciative.

-- Allan Williams

While I agree with you that the Internet is full of unsubstantiated speculation about the Wellstone crash, I remain convinced that it warrants investigation due to the timing and circumstances. The similarities to the Carnahan crash are remarkable.

Speaking as a pilot, how can we determine that the National Transportation Safety Board is not suppressing evidence or fabricating evidence? What evidence should we look for in the published reports that might confirm or allay suspicions that someone used electronic warfare equipment to disrupt the operation of the plane's IFR [instrument flight rules] equipment? While the Wellstone pilots did not report anything suspicious before their crash, I read that Carnahan reported problems with his IFR gear just before his crash. Since this is the second suspicious airplane crash to take out a Democratic enemy of the Bush gang, I think that the burden of proof is on those people who want to believe both crashes were accidents.

In short, where do we go for independent and reliable information?

-- Loran Gayton

What, exactly, is this article about, beyond Patrick Smith's displaying, in negative, his knowledge of planes? Is there anything about Wellstone's crash here? Is there anything about anything here, other than the "danger" of listening to non-experts? If Mr. Smith is truly an expert himself, he doesn't appear to be particularly confident in his own knowledge. Using a national venue to refute the claims of non-experts -- sounds like a bully to me.

And of course, it is my choice to read it or not; it is also Mr. Smith's choice to write it or not and Salon's choice to print it or not.

-- Jon Wei

I want to thank you for the "facts." And, no, I'm not being facetious.

It did rumble through my mind a day or two after Senator Wellstone's death that it was intentional, considering the death of the Missouri [Senate candidate Mel Carnahan] two years ago. Now, I have adopted a moral, "do not attribute to conspiracy/evil that which can be explained by ignorance or incompetence." But a political assassination did cross my mind in an uneasy way. However your staid and expert response has allayed my fears. Thank you for your rational explanation of the events surrounding Paul Wellstone's death.

-- Keiran Murphy

Thank you for taking time to attempt a preemptive debunking of the Wellstone murder conspiracy. Unfortunately, I already foresee this urban legend having legs far beyond any refutation by competent experts. But since the Clintons had Vince Foster killed, I suppose now the two parties are almost even in domestic assassinations.

-- Stephen R. Brown

I have written before expressing my appreciation for your concise and entertaining writing, and by cracky, you've done it again with your piece about the conspiracy theories regarding the Wellstone crash. You are doing aviation and the general public a great service with your clear-sighted explanations; other commentators appear to be in the process of recurrent IFR training as they view the world with "foggles" in place.

I don't watch television, but if that media isn't calling you for interviews after the next high-profile aviation accident, then they prove themselves to be as stupid and uninterested in "facts" (sorry!) as they seem.

-- Eric Krueger

As a Minnesotan who was going to vote for Wellstone, I, like many others, was stunned and saddened by his death. I have no idea what happened and was waiting for some sort of official report before slinging any of my theories.

Aside: My working theory is that the crash was an accident but some very unscrupulous people took the opportunity for nasty politics, pouring money into spin control, pouncing on and exaggerating the views of a few people who found the memorial to be too much of a campaign rally. The whole thing reeks of the same kind of partisanship that shut down the Florida recount efforts in 2000. But I digress.

Your article in Salon.com is the first I've seen with any sort of knowledgeable airplane analysis. Still, you have committed the standard grievous error that is only going to fuel conspiracy theories: You have taken the wildest theory and pooh-poohed it with ad hominems without actually addressing the facts.

Please don't phrase things quite so negatively: This guy is claiming as a fact that which is unlikely; therefore what he says isn't true. One guy going off the deep end doesn't prove the opposite of his contentions; it merely proves nothing.

OK, going from your article, I have a few questions for you:

So both pilots were busy... how busy do you have to be not to call the tower? For how long? Is it usual for an aircraft with two pilots to crash without communication of a problem? If so, what are the odds?

Fifteen degrees doesn't seem like much of a danger for a healthy plane. Bad, but recoverable. Is this the case? How bad would the situation be for two pilots to fail to regain control of a plane at this angle?

The impact site was pretty devastated, according to witnesses. What would it take for a swamp to be such a fiery wreckage? Would an impact at 15 degrees do it?

Pilots aside, it sounds as if there was some time in the plane when the danger was known. Why didn't anyone jump out? Aren't there emergency procedures the passengers can take? Did anyone use their cellphones?

And, finally, do we yet have any data from the flight recorders?

Thanks for the article. I'm not a big conspiracy buff, but I have yet to hear a convincing discussion of what actually happened.

-- David E. Romm

Smith writes, "I do not necessarily disagree with the writer's final sentence, which makes the rest of the mess even more irritating because the plausibility level is so low."

No, no, Smith -- the "pilot" who asserts that Wellstone was murdered -- and that "Bush and his boys play for keeps and we have begun to see what an incredibly corrupt gang of oil thugs they actually are" -- is a very consistent guy. He's an all-around idiot. I suppose, since Salon publishes you, that you just had to go along with his political idiocy while debunking his dubious detective work?

-- Jon Bowden

Thanks for the sanity feed on the airplane crashes. I was deeply engaged in the KAL-007 debates (1983 Sakhalin shootdown) for many years, defending a thesis that it was a fickle combination of oversights and false assumptions rather than either Commie malice or CIA malice. When the CVR [cockpit voice recorder] and FDR [flight data recorder] came out in the early '90s following the collapse of the USSR, by golly that's what the data showed. I told 'em so, but hindsight vindication is scant comfort.

I also wrote up the 1987 crash of Mozambique president [Samora] Machel's aircraft in South Africa, in my 1988 book "Uncovering Soviet Disasters" (it was a Soviet plane and Soviet air crew). The Soviets and most African states decreed it had been an assassination by Pretoria using false beacons, but Frank Borman (astronaut and A.A. honcho) led a group that determined the flight crew was tired and drunk and had just screwed up. Example: Thinking Maputo was just ahead but puzzled by the darkness (they were 200 miles to the west), the crew asked the Maputo tower to "Check runway lights." The controller there assumed the flight crew was saying "Check! Runway lights (in sight)," and answered, "OK, clear to land." The ground-proximity alert went off and the pilot angrily shouted, "Turn that damn thing off, it's distracting me." But the new South African government is still trying to dig out the "hidden conspiracy" and is mighty pissed they can't seem to find any guilty white men to put on trial.

My uncle's C-47 iced up over the Himalayas flying the "Hump" one night in 1943. Once his measured barometer altitude had dropped way below the heights of the peaks surrounding his plotted route, he took the only chance left to him. He ordered the crew to jump out of the plane. They came down in northern Assam, on the grounds of a teak plantation, and they were found and brought to the foreman's house for stiff drinks within an hour -- minus most of their shoes and strapped-on gear, which had been torn off when they jumped. The plane was never found. They were missing for six weeks because the rivers were in flood and they had to stay put, and there was no communication with the coast. He died of a heart attack in 1997 at age 79, one tough old geezer.

Anyhow, good going!

-- Jim Oberg

Whenever I hear about the NTSB investigating the latest air tragedy, I recall a dinner I had several years ago with friends. One of their guests owned a company that manufactured helicopter parts. He told us that it was routine for an investigating agency to ask people such as himself -- that is, those in the industry with technical expertise, particularly about their own product -- to participate in the investigation. There was no concern for conflict of interest, according to him. On more than one occasion, he insisted, he had visited a crash site and "pocketed" a faulty part, thereby avoiding responsibility and liability. This was not a drunken boast; he said it was standard operating procedure in the industry.

Given that you do not disagree with the final sentence (regarding the Bush administration) in the writer's assertion that Paul Wellstone's death was a conspiracy, can we believe the NTSB's final report? Is it not possible that it may be pressured by certain entities -- whether politically motivated or liability averse -- to compromise the truth? And in the end, isn't it possible that we may never know what really happened, so that foul play may be as much a possibility as mechanical failure? (I'm not much on conspiracies, but the coincidence between Paul Wellstone's death and that of Mel Carnahan, for starters, is somewhat striking.) Thanks for making the skies clearer, if not safer.

-- Judith F. Waldman

[Read "Losing Faith in PayPal," by Damien Cave.]

In an interview published on your site in the spring of 2001, I was quoted as expressing comments regarding the independent entities that provide exchange services between e-gold and national currencies that possibly could have been construed negatively. While I did not specifically mention any of those independent entities, and I maintain that my actual statements were distorted and embellished by the author of the particular article, I regret any negative impact that might have resulted. PayPal and e-gold, though they bear little resemblance in business model, have faced similar challenges in seeking to offer low-cost, secure mechanisms for online payments. A major goal of both systems is to thwart cyber-criminals and help make the Internet a safer and more efficient place to do business.

-- Peter Thiel

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