It’s been 10 years ago this week since John F. Kennedy Jr. took a fatal plunge into the waters off Cape Cod along with his wife and sister-in-law. If you’ve forgotten the details, you can read the landmark accident report and some supporting articles. The NTSB ultimately determined that spatial disorientation leading to a spiral was the probable cause.
That accident was truly a landmark , not because it was particularly unusual but because of who was involved. Media loves celebrities as we’ve seen recently and coverage is often non-stop until some bigger fiasco emerges or the chattering classes run out of things to say. There were congressional hearings to ask if VFR at night should be eliminated and after much debate, the decision was to leave the rules as there were.
From a safety and training perspective the message is as it was a decade ago. Night flight over water or in sparsely populated areas is instrument flight. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and Kennedy was said to be about half way through his instrument training.
That he was flying a fully equipped Piper Saratoga and managed to get insurance says something about the risk mindset of an underwriter and that’s another conversation.
Here’s what I took away from this accident:
- Individual Metars may easily mislead in micro-climates like the Cape Cod islands. Temperature and dewpoint should always be looked at with suspicion when over water.
- Autopilots are not substitutes for instrument proficiency but they might (but not always) save your bacon in a spatial disorientation situation.
- Night compounds orientation problems tremendously because of widely scattered areas of dark (with apologies to George Carlin)
- If you are not quite up to the flight in terms of skill (a hard thing to admit) have a plan B in mind and be willing to use it.
So, I haven’t come up with any revelations since 1999 but perhaps some of you have additional observations.
Read more commentary about the accident in “Remembering the Kennedy accident” by AOPA Pilot Editor in Chief Tom Haines.