Tom Haines

Remembering the Kennedy accident

July 15, 2009 by Thomas B. Haines, Editor in Chief

I returned home from a few early Saturday morning errands to find a panicked message on my home answering machine. It was July 17, 1999–you remember the days before PDAs and text messages when we were out of touch for sometimes hours at a time. Anyhow, the message was from a media contact at Piper Aircraft who said the company needed help from AOPA. They were being hammered by the media because of the John F. Kennedy Jr. accident. Could we help?


Clueless as usual, I turned on the television to find that apparently everyone but I knew that young Kennedy was missing; his Piper Saratoga last heard from near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the night before. Thus began what turned out to be a very busy day full of media speculation.

To assist Piper, I tracked down AOPA’s media relations contacts at the time, Warren Morningstar and Drew Steketee. They both were already in the loop (they had pagers–you remember those). I put the two in touch with Piper. The media was starting to question the safety record of the venerable PA-32 and was looking for an independent source of safety information, such as the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. The PA-32 then and now has a fine safety record and the notion that the airplane was at fault quickly went away.

The July 1999 issue of AOPA Pilot happened to have a new Saratoga on the cover, which wasn’t lost on some resourceful reporters for major magazines and newspapers who quickly found my home number and started calling for insights into the airplane. Although I didn’t write that particular article, I did have several hundred hours in the trusty Saratoga. Before I was willing to share any comments I made sure I had a long enough conversation with the reporter to make sure that I felt he was truly looking for insights as opposed to seeking someone to support his own agenda. Most were quite reasonable and could be convinced not to speculate about the cause–especially since at that point they hadn’t even found the bodies of Kennedy, his wife, and sister-in-law.

The next day, a Sunday, I found myself in a Kennedy-esque sort of situation. I was flying northeast from Frederick, Maryland, to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to look at an F33 Bonanza that I was considering buying. It was a typical Mid-Atlantic sort of summer morning–hazy, hot, and humid. There were a few scattered cumulus clouds around, but they were mostly masked by the haze. Knowing the region well, I launched VFR but soon regretted the decision. It was technically VFR, but the haze was incredibly thick–even by our usual standards. Even in daylight, I was relying mostly on the instruments, happy to have a solid autopilot in the A36 Bonanza I was flying. By my late-morning return to Frederick, the conditions were even worse, but I had wised up enough to file IFR. I couldn’t imagine flying in such conditions at night and over water with no horizon–especially without an instrument rating. What was Junior thinking?

As AOPA Air Safety Foundation President Bruce Landsberg pointed out a year later in our Landmark Accident report, the NTSB determined the accident was the result of spatial disorientation caused by the haze at night and the young pilot’s relative inexperience in flying in such conditions.

In his blog this week, Landsberg reminds us that having a Plan B is the best strategy when you think you might be headed into a situation that is more than you can handle. Equally as important is a willingness to execute Plan B, which can sometimes mean telling naive passengers that you’re driving this evening or staying home, as disappointing as that may be. Better to be stuck at home than the subject of an NTSB report and on the receiving end of a lot of media speculation.


8 Responses to “Remembering the Kennedy accident”

  1. I am the Witness Says:

    RE: JFK jr.

    This tragedy, along with the Egyptair 990 disaster, was NOT an accident. I testified under oath before officials of the NTSB and identified one of the perpetrators in BOTH. It was the Mossad. It was covered up. Only question – what US politicians were they working for or with. MO = MK ULTRA on Batouti, the EA 990 copilot (google please) he got a “treatment” at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC. An EMP weapon was fired from a boat just after John Jr. called into Martha’s Vineyard tower -causing the instruments to go haywire and perhaps temporarily stalling the engine as well.

    This may come out soon.

    Senior International Airline Captain for US Airline

  2. dpn cleveland Says:

    nut bags are us i guess .

  3. said Mustaffi Says:

    I hope I never fly on that captain’s plane….is he serious….if so, major US Airlines need to reconsider who they hire

  4. copilot Says:

    A significant number of commercial accidents are terrorism “the art of the plane crash”. Google “Egyptair 990 + Egyptian Military Officers” and you will find there were 33 aboard EA 990, including Generals – returning from a training exercise in the US. What a target!

    JFK jr. was going to run for the Senate in 2000 against Hillary according to NBC Nightline before the accident. Many think he would be President today had he lived.

  5. David Says:

    I remember that day. It was just as hazy between Albany NY and Plattsburgh NY.
    It was legally VFR but after trying for some time to keep the wings level and still look
    out for traffic, I decided to turn on the STEC 50 to keep the plane going in the right
    direction. (Archer III). In day VFR it was not dangerous, just distracting to not use
    the autopilot. Mr. Kennedy had (I believe) the same STEC 50. If only he had had the
    presence of mind to use it he would have kept wings level. It is very dark out there
    leaving the Connecticut coast, passing Block Island and waiting for the Vineyard to
    appear. Not hard for the autopilot. Hard for someone, over water, little actual instrument
    time and a plane that accelerates quickly. Dropping the gear would have helped too.
    I’m not a Kennedy admirer but I did like him a lot – seeing and hearing him on radio and tv
    he seemed very likable and a decent person. One of those very sad events.

  6. Vince Foster Says:

    First, this person confirmed that the weather in MARTHA’S VINEYARD the evening of July 16 was generally excellent.

    This person was asked to “take a look” at something–an “internal” report by/from the FAA on the circumstances of that event. In particular this report was concerned with the CONDITION of the aircraft.

    First, the plane in question flown by Mr. John Kennedy was outfitted with every possible bell and whistle available; as well as the most up-to-date communications devices, emergency beacons, autopilot, instruments, gauges, AND Global Positioning technology.

    Said FAA report is in MAJOR contradiction to the tone and content of the PUBLICLY–and belatedly–released NTSB report. Said FAA report indicates that the aircraft was subjected to a MASSIVE electromagnetic “event” of some kind or other. EVERY SINGLE lightbulb in the aircraft was blown; filaments burned out. ALL integrated circuitry and communications devices were MELTED, fused, fried and toasted in every sense of the word. The voice recorder system was in fact non-functional anyway. Kennedy had forgotten to put in a 9-volt battery. Chalk one SMALL point up to the “operator error” crowd. Electronic sensing units in fuel and engine areas were also sizzled.

    Is this “report” genuine? The real thing? I have no idea, but the person I talked with who saw and held it believes it to be. This person has been a near-perfect source for me in the past.

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