John F. Kennedy, Jr. airplane crash: Wikis

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John F. Kennedy, Jr. Piper Saratoga crash

a Piper Saratoga similar to the one flown by John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Accident summary
Date July 16, 1999 (1999-07-16)
Type Pilot error
Site Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
41°17′37″N 70°58′39″W / 41.29367°N 70.97756°W / 41.29367; -70.97756Coordinates: 41°17′37″N 70°58′39″W / 41.29367°N 70.97756°W / 41.29367; -70.97756[1]
Passengers 2
Crew 1
Fatalities 3
Survivors 0
Aircraft type Piper PA-32R-301, Saratoga II
Operator private
Tail number N9253N
Flight origin Essex County Airport, New Jersey (CDW)
Destination Martha's Vineyard Airport, Massachusetts (MVY)

On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy, Jr. was killed when the Piper Saratoga light aircraft he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. His wife, Carolyn Jeanne Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Gail Bessette, were also killed. The flight originated from Essex County Airport (CDW) in Fairfield Township, Essex County, New Jersey. The intended flight path was along the coastline of Connecticut and across Rhode Island Sound to Martha's Vineyard Airport (MVY).

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported its conclusion that the crash was caused by Kennedy's failure to maintain control of his airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation.[1] The NTSB and other aviation professionals have also cited additional interrelated factors that may have contributed to the crash.

Contents

Causes

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Haze and visibility

Hazy conditions existed on the night of the crash. Especially at night, haze can lead to spatial disorientation for pilots. Although the weather was officially listed as VFR (Visual Flight Rules), allowing Kennedy to fly that night despite his lack of an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) rating, the visibility was poor in Essex County, New Jersey, and airports along his flight path reported visibilities between 5 and 8 miles with haze and few clouds. Other pilots flying similar routes on the night of the accident reported no visual horizon while flying over the water because of haze. At least one pilot interviewed by the NTSB in the subsequent crash investigation canceled his flight to Martha's Vineyard that night: "Based only on the current weather conditions at CDW, the fact that I could not get my friends to come with me, and the fact that I would not have to spend money on a hotel room in Martha's Vineyard, I made the decision to fly my airplane to Martha's Vineyard on Saturday." The conditions near the crash site were "Clear skies at or below 12,000 feet; visibility 10 miles".[1]

Pilot experience

Kennedy obtained his private pilot license in April 1998. He did not possess an instrument rating. He received a "high performance airplane" sign-off in June 1998 and a Complex airplane sign-off in the accident airplane two months before the crash.[1] Kennedy's estimated total flight experience was about 310 hours, of which 55 hours were at night. His estimated experience flying without a certified flight instructor (CFI) on board was about 72 hours. His estimated flight time in the accident airplane was about 36 hours, of which 9.4 hours were at night. Approximately 3 hours of that flight time was without a CFI on board, and only 48 minutes of that time was flown at night, which included just one night landing.[1] In the 15 months before the accident, Kennedy had flown about 35 flights either to or from northern New Jersey and the Martha's Vineyard area. Kennedy flew over 17 of these legs without a CFI on board, including at least 5 at night. His last known flight in the accident airplane without a CFI on board was on May 28, 1999.[1]

Pilot training

The CFI who prepared Kennedy for his private pilot checkride stated that he had "very good" flying skills for his level of experience. Four months before the crash, Kennedy passed the FAA's written airplane instrument examination and enrolled in an instrument rating course. He continued to receive flight instruction in New Jersey in the accident airplane, including flights from CDW to MVY. His instructors said he required help working the rudder pedals to taxi and land the plane because of an ankle injury. During a training flight at night under instrument conditions, his instructor stated that Kennedy had the ability to fly the airplane without a visible horizon but may have had difficulty performing additional tasks under such conditions. He also stated that the pilot was not ready for an instrument evaluation, and needed additional training. The instructor at the time of the crash was not aware that Kennedy would be flying in those conditions without an instructor on board. The CFI further stated that he had talked to Kennedy on the day of the accident and offered to fly with him that night. He stated that Kennedy declined. The CFI stated that Kennedy had the capability to conduct a night flight to Martha's Vineyard as long as a visible horizon existed.

Psychological stress

The NTSB suggested that Kennedy's marriage may have contributed to a source of stress at the time of the crash.[2] Kennedy spent the final three nights of his life apart from his wife at a New York City hotel before the crash.[3] Additionally, Kennedy's magazine, George, was in serious financial trouble. According to the Federal Aviation Regulations, "stress from everyday living can impair pilot performance, often in subtle ways. Distractions can so interfere with judgment that unwarranted risks are taken, such as flying into deteriorating weather conditions to keep on schedule."

Pilot distraction

Kennedy's plane flew into the path of American Airlines Flight 1484, which was on approach to Westchester County Airport.[1] Controllers instructed the American Airlines jet to descend to avoid a collision. The two aircraft came "uncomfortably close."[3]

No flight plan or request for help

Kennedy never received a weather briefing or filed a flight plan with any Flight Service Station. Except for the take-off portion of flight, he did not contact any ground controllers; during the flight, he never asked for help or sent a distress call.[4] Under the conditions of his flight, he was not required to file a flight plan. Because he did not, no one knew his exact route or expected time of arrival. According to a private weather service, Weather Service International, Kennedy made two weather requests before taking off. The information he was provided indicated that visibility ranged from 10 miles along his route to 4 miles at Martha's Vineyard.

Late departure

The flight was scheduled for daylight hours, but had to be postponed after Kennedy's sister-in-law was delayed at work. Heavy traffic further delayed the trip and pushed it back until after dark. Originally planned to depart at 6:00 PM, the flight took off at 8:39 PM, nearly a half-hour past sunset. At the time of the take-off, the moon was just above the horizon and provided very little illumination.

Flight over featureless, open water

After passing Point Judith, Rhode Island, Kennedy's plane headed directly towards Martha's Vineyard. Instead of following the coastline of Rhode Island Sound and Buzzards Bay (which would have provided visible lights on the ground), Kennedy chose the shorter, direct path over a 30-mile (50 km) open stretch of water. According to the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, crossing large bodies of water at night can be hazardous, not only from the standpoint of ditching in the water, but also because the featureless horizon visually blends with the water, in which case, depth perception and orientation become difficult.

Injured foot

Six weeks before the crash, Kennedy fractured his left ankle in a hang gliding accident. He had surgery, wore a cast and walked with a cane up until the day of the accident. During interviews, Kennedy's orthopedic surgeon stated that, at the time of the accident, he would have been able to apply the type of pressure that would normally be required to drive a car. Kennedy had a noticeable limp on the day of the crash.

Wrong frequencies

When investigators examined the wreckage, they discovered that both of Kennedy's radios had incorrect frequencies selected (Kennedy had selected 127.25 for Martha Vineyard's ATIS instead of 126.25; likewise, he selected 135.25 for Essex County ATIS, but it should have been 135.5). The NTSB did not comment on the contribution this factor had in the crash, if any.[1]

Memorial service

During a public memorial service on July 23, 1999, Kennedy's paternal uncle, U.S. Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy, stated:

We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side. But like his father, he had every gift but length of years.[5]

U.S. President Bill Clinton attended the public memorial service, as did the rest of the first family, and ordered that the flag at the White House and in public areas within the country be lowered to half-staff to honor the passing of John F. Kennedy, Jr. At President Clinton's orders, warships of the U.S. Navy assisted for searching the crashed plane. With the permission of U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a public memorial service for Kennedy was held aboard the Navy ship USS Briscoe (DD-977). His ashes were scattered from the ship off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.[6]

Wrongful-death lawsuit

A wrongful-death lawsuit was filed by members of the Bessette and Freeman families against the Kennedy estate. It concluded with an undisclosed out of court settlement, which avoided the publicity of a public trial.

See also

  • Kennedy curse - briefly summarizes Kennedy family tragic events

References


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