JFK, Jr. at 10 Years

July 15, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

JFK copyIt’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.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • I am the Witness

    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.

    “Plan A” with N9253N wa MK ULTRA on the copilot Kennedy invited along. When he did not accept, they went to “Plan B” – EMP Weapon (originally designed for law enforcement to avoid an automobile chase – designed to disable ignition – there is also a microwave version which fries circuits).

    This may come out soon.

    Senior International Airline Captain for US Airline

  • Roger Wigield

    Leave the anonymous conspiracy theory’s to unread websites where they belong.

  • Paul Wood

    It is amazing that the media, the NTSB and now AOPA recalls this tragic incident in which the son of a famous President not only kills himself, his wife and sister in law, but that it claims that the cause was “spatial disorientation” . That might have been a symptom but the real cause was an unqualified pilot flying from VMC to IMC and doing nothing about it. I was taught that when you lose visual reference to the ground you are in IMC and you take immediate action to get yourself back to visual conditions. It was the failing of that pilot to recognize the seriousness of his plight that ended in tragedy and the sadest of all was that he took two additional lives with him. Very little is ever said about these two unfortunates. JFK, Jr. might have been the son of JFK but that did not qualify him to fly in conditions that exceeded his ability as a pilot. Let’s be realistic in our evaluation of this incident so that others who might tempt fate reconsider the potential dangers of overestimating their own ability.

  • Peter Lane

    I was flying that night myself from NYC to Buffalo. I am instrument rated and fly a Baron. It was truly a see nothing evening from above 2000 feet and above and when I heard the news and then had to endure all of the pundits and the vigil that the news kept up while the Coast Guard and others spent looking I had to think I wonder if I would have had the publicity and search put out for me if I had pulled such a dumbass maneuver and gotten myself and perhaps others killed that night. I spent 20 years flying along the New England coast and the islands, and sometimes even on a good day it is hard to tell up from down. I agree with Paul Wood above that celebrity does not exempt one from having to have the basic skills to get from point A to point B. We have all had our share of learning experiences and it is sad that Kennedy felt himself above all that, and worse that our media and government felt that because of who he was that he was selected for special treatment with the multi day coverage and multimillion dollar SAR mission despite the lost cause that it was. Lets post this accident as a classic case of the unknowing venturing into the unknown and getting themselves caught in the trap. Many have gone there before us–I only wonder how many more will.

  • Jay Koven

    I spent that weekend getting my Multi Engine rating at Groton, Ct. Right on the route that JFK jr. took. In daylight we had a very dificult time finding clear enough conditions to do airwork. The weather was VFR in name only. The haze above a couple of thousand feet was closer to fog. I can not imagine anyone considering that the weather during that flight was VFR at night. While I would not advocate geting rid of night VFR I do think that additional training and higher minimums for night VFR should be considered. An additional thought is that JFK jr. could have flown up the coast of over land with llights and then only flown the short hop out from the cape to the islands over water. That might have allowed him to keep his orientation and save the lives of himself and his passengers.

  • Harry Lerch

    Bruce: Good article. Spatial disorientation frequently begins with a simple distraction or an unexpected event. Looking down to pick up a dropped pencil is a frequently used example. Two things that struck me about the accident that have received little or no attention.

    The first was that it occurred in or near the No Man’s Island Restricted Area, and also in the area that John probably would have been changing frequencies to call the tower. Either or both, of course, would have caused him to focus on the radios and/or flashing alert warning from his GPS, and away from the view outside. If he was descending into the haze layer at the time, and then looked outside after focusing on the radios or GPS, spatial orientation would have been quite likely.

    In this context, I wonder whehter there might be a category of air space less onerous than restricted air space that could be used to protect wildlife, and perhaps in many cases with lower tops. With GPS support we can track their locations, but the prohibition against flying into restricted areas without clearances can be a significant distraction when a GPS alert is suddenly flashed at you in a dark cockpit.

    Secondly, from reports I read at the time, it appeared that John had a very high proportion of dual time with an instructor as opposed to solo time. This supports your last two points regarding night training, minimums, and flying over land rather than open water.

  • Donnie Todd

    As Clint Eastwood said as Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations” and John John did not. He paid the ultimate price and carried two innocent people with him.

    I agree with Peter Lane; They sure as hell would not have looked for me and my two pax.

    The only thing for us to do is try to learn (and teach) from his errors.

  • David S. Twining

    Here in the Pacific Northwest, I routinely transistion to instruments on take-off, under night VFR, checking attitude and rate of climb. Long before I became IFR certified, I found that dark-night operations here absolutely required being comfortable on the instruments. Fortunately, my primary instructor had conducted extra under-the-hood lessons at night, when light and shadow effects inside the cockpit were absent and could not provide a visual reference. Later on, I found this training to be of great value in the attitude instrument part of my IFR course work.

  • Jesse G. Eschenheimer

    When in the NY neck of the woods and heading to the Vineyard at night, I fly over the airports- Westchester-Bridgeport-New Haven-Groton-Westerly-Newport-and then if it looks good-MVY. It’s only a little more gas and one night it saved my butt. I landed with my best friend in Groton and rented a car when we heard that a forecast was “revised” and Providence was reporting 1/4 with dense fog getting thicker.It was bad driving over the Newport Bridge! Take a pilot friend with you to be safe and have more fun, and it’s better to get the plane the next day in one piece.

  • Richard Nolan

    THere is something that might be added to this that should give us food for thought . According to people at Essex who knew John, He was scheduled to leave at 6PM –his wife arrived at 7PM and advised that they had to wait for her sister who arrived at 7:45 pm. As you may be aware it was only about an hour and a half flight and leaving at 6PM would have had him at destination in plenty of daylight. I would think this frustration and a family situationwhich was not conducive to pleasant cabin attitude I think might have added a lot to the negative impact that transpired. No one really knows what went on in that plane but as the rules say–when the negatives outweighted the positives etc— and unfortunately they all paid with their lives.

  • William Olsen

    We now know that John Kennedy was not permitted to fly due to A) a broken bone in the foot or ankle, B) the pain medication he was taking for said foot, and C) he had about three hours sleep the previous night. He was also very distraght over his business difficulties. He flew anyway and refused the offer of a flight instructor he knew well to fly along.
    I was also amazed that his recovered body was cremated within a few hours of it’s discovery; something not allowed by law in any state I am aware of. Any accidental death prohibits cremation for at least 48 hours in most states. But the law does not apply to royalty. This we forget.

  • Tom

    I can sum this up fast, Just think, there are still a lot fo edit like him up there.

  • jack

    senior international airline pilot accusing the mosad in jfk accident must be a sick anti-semite or he is plain crazey –and should be tested whrther he is qualified to operate a commercial aircraft

  • copilot

    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.

  • Vince Foster

    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.

  • David Heberling

    I remember that accident well. I even flew with an F/O who had flown that particular Saratoga. It is as you said, Bruce, an accident that did not have to happen (despite what a conspiracy theorist says above). The airplane was very well equipped with a wonderful autopilot. Besides disorientation, “get-there-itis” was definitely a factor. You could probably throw in fatigue for good measure. There were so many options which would have prevented this accident from happening.

    He left a lot later than originally planned, and worked a full day at the office before launching for the Vineyard. When he lost visual reference, he did not make a 180 to return to the well lighted coastline. He obviously did not know how to operate the autopilot. If he had had that engaged, the spiral would not have happened. As it was, it can be assumed that he was hand flying the airplane at the same time he was trying to look up frequencies and airways.

    You would think that after he recovered from the first spiral, that he would have scared himself silly and turned around. However, undeterred, he pressed on and entered the fatal spiral moments later. This is such a classic VFR into IFR accident. It is loaded with lessons for all of us on what not to do should we encounter similar conditions. The sad truth is that if he had returned to the coast and spent the night, he could have left early enough in the morning to arrive safely for the wedding.

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