Letters from the skies

Pilots share their stories of vertigo, and tell us what we can learn from JFK Jr.'s tragic judgment.

By Salon Staff
July 23, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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I don't fly for a living, but I am a commercially licensed pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings and over 2500 hours and 35 years experience, having soloed at age 17. I fly extensively for business and pleasure. I flew many hours over every kind of terrain, day and night, before I earned the more advanced ratings.

I don't believe John Kennedy Jr. acted out of pure recklessness, so much as a combination of understandable factors: high enthusiasm for what private flying allows you to do -- jump over to Martha's Vineyard in an hour on your own schedule, drop off a friend, and then pop on over to Hyannisport, a 15-minute hop; overconfidence brought on by the fact that he'd made this trip many times with no problem (although, apparently, usually with an instructor); the pressure to keep to a schedule that included a wedding.

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He did some very imprudent things. First, and most glaring, setting out over water at night without either filing a flight plan or, better, requesting Flight Following after he got in the air. This service, available to any pilot whether or not he's instrument rated, would have put him in constant contact with Air Traffic Control for the entire trip.

[Air Traffic Control] would have called out any aircraft that posed a danger to his flight. And when the plane disappeared, they would have immediately sent searchers -- something that could save your life if you survived a water landing. I would never, never, never fly over water -- particularly at night with passengers -- without "hand holding" by ATC. As a new, non-instrument rated pilot, Kennedy might have only vaguely known about Flight Following. Or he may have been intimidated. But it is likely Kennedy did not fully appreciate how flying over water on a moonless night can leave you with no horizon or useful visual reference and almost totally dependent on your flight instruments and the skill to use them. The haze and fog multiplied that danger. (Recently on a trip from Sedona, Ariz. to Santa Monica, Calif., I had to fly almost entirely on instruments for half the trip with ceiling unlimited and visibility over 50 miles. The desert, like the water, is very black at night, and looking out at a black hole will quickly induce vertigo.)

In addition to the obvious tragedy of all this, I have a parochial reason to be dismayed: John Kennedy Jr.'s high profile and great love for flight would likely have been a very positive force for aviation, particularly personal flying. His death this way will now bring some unfair infamy to what for most pilots is both a passion and a highly practical skill. But it is a skill that must be acquired carefully over time and constantly refreshed.

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--Robert Chandler
Beverly Hills, Calif.

The Hise article on flying in marginal weather was excellent ["A pilot's story"]. Finally you got a writer with some aviation experience rather than another fool journalist who has no idea and no understanding about aviation. The reporting on the Kennedy accident and aviation matters in general has been generally atrocious. This article is a rare exception.

--George H. Pfeiffer
Certified Flight Instructor, Instrument

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I was very disappointed in Phaedra Hise's story on her experience as a pilot flying along the New England coast ["A pilot's story"]. I have interacted with many pilots, instructors, and student pilots since obtaining my VFR license several years ago, and have flown many hours as co-pilot in a Beechcraft Bonanza owned by my fiance who is an experienced IFR-rated pilot. I have never heard a real pilot describe challenging flying conditions the way Ms. Hise has done. She should know better. While flying can be challenging, injecting such degree of sensationalism as to make it sound like being on a scary, potentially fatal ride at an amusement park only serves to reinforce the public's notions about general aviation and flying -- that it is uniformly dangerous.

General aviation's safety record surpasses that of commercial flying when one carefully examines the facts. While there were 361 fatalities in 1998 and domestic commercial carriers had none, one must note the much higher number of operations, including takeoffs and landings, compared to commercial flying, and the fact that the accident rate in 1998 was the best on record. Outstanding aviation organizations and services such as Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association and web sites such as AvWeb are working to educate and disseminate accurate information and promote safety in flying. That the news media continues to propagate myths about aviation to an already misinformed public only makes their job that much harder.

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--Kathryn M. Zunich, M.D.

As an old pilot circa Korean War helicopters, we used to say there are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are no old bold pilots.

--John C. Carrig

All that money, why not fly first class?

--Hank Monroe

What a wonderful thing it is to learn to fly, to have the most thrilling sensations of going up in the sky and the flexibility to fly to places when and where you want to. But unless you can control your own need to prove your capabilities and can manage the risks associated with your flying skills, peril awaits.

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For 12 years I flew my Cessna 152, with a Sparrow Hawk conversion which suped it up from 100 to 125 horsepower. In 650-plus hours of flying time, I had several close encounters with the same situations that claimed John Jr. I've flown into and out of Martha's Vineyard and its neighboring island, Nantucket, many times, and can say that sometimes I was really gambling with destiny. Once, I flew through the haze, spiralling down to the airport my Loran (similar to the GPS instrument John had) said was right beneath me. Until I got about 1800 feet above it, I really could not tell where I was. While in the haze, I couldn't see the horizon and had to rely on my gauges to keep me flying straight and level. I couldn't get back out of the airport safely for four days, with no break in the fog and haze above me.

I've since had several other experiences that frightened me to the point that I questioned my need to continue flying, especially one battle with an unforecast wind-shear condition which forced me to land at my home airport in hill-fringed Columbia County, N.Y., after a 14-hour trip back from Florida. I was overly tired, with a "get there-itis" feeling (which John Jr. had) that impeded my judgement in not using a safer, alternate airport -- Albany, 30 miles away. This condition had me making seven or eight approaches at 3 a.m. and doing a figure-eight approach. I was blown off the runway tarmac and did a "controlled crash," breaking my prop and my nose-wheel. But I walked away from it -- the bottom line of a good landing.

After that scary episode, I gained a healthy respect for weather conditions, which ultimately, made me decide not to fly as much as I had been and, ultimately, losing confidence in my flying skills and, thus, deciding to sell the plane. My recent engagement to a very special lady made me realize how precious life is and how chancy my "living on the edge" flying experiences were. So, I sold it a few months ago, rarely looking back to those anxious moments.

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--Larry Marshall

I soloed my plane after only five flights with the instructor. Unlike when driving a car, when the visibility becomes limited or the situation exceeds your ability, a pilot can't just pull over and stop. In a car you must mind your speed and your turns, but a plane adds up and down to that formula.

My plane was a forgiving Cessna 182, which when properly trimmed, would fly straight and level, unlike Kennedy's plane. Remembering the time when my log book recorded only 40 to 100 hours, as did Kennedy's, I recall the confusion I felt, complete with dry mouth, sweaty palms and a knot in my stomach. My remembrance of that lack of competence confirms my belief that anyone who is a new pilot should only fly in optimum conditions, over a familiar route. I would have been way over my head, in both his plane and in marginal VFR conditions.

When I did my first night flight we flew from the small airport where the plane was kept to Intercontinental Airport (now George Bush) in Houston, only a few miles. Upon our return, my plane landed safely with some limited visibility due to clouds. The plane behind us, however, piloted by other students and their instructor, had to call in for an instrument landing with control tower assistance because the fog and clouds had closed in and they couldn't see the runway until they were already well into their final approach. If that instructor had not been instrument rated, the second plane would have crashed.

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Kennedy's equipment was much too advanced for his experience, as was the limited visibility. His level of experience and that high performance plane was equivalent to putting a just licensed 16-year-old driver behind the wheel of a Ferrari. The hazy conditions Kennedy experienced puts that 16-year-old and his Ferrari on a rain-slicked mountain road with shrouds of fog.

Hopefully Kennedy's death will not be in vain, but will encourage other pilots to seek advanced training and experience before taking off in marginal conditions.

--Denise Denham
Mission, Texas

In your article "Graveyard spiral," you stated, in regard to what investigators now believe happened to JFK Jr.'s. airplane, that: "The
spin can exert such pressure on the plane it can break up in midair."

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This is not exactly true. There is a subtle but crucial difference between a "spin" and a "spiral" in an airplane. There's a reason they call it a "death spiral" -- in a spiral, both wings are flying through the air -- that means that both wings have sufficient airflow over them, and in the proper direction (front-to-back), that they provide the lift required to keep the airplane airborne. However, in a spiral, the airplane is in a cock-eyed
position relative to its direction of travel -- sort of like a car that has
four good tires and a perfectly operating engine, but somehow gets into a
sideways skid. Every component of the car may be working properly, but the car is not under control and may actually crack up because of it.

In a spiral, the airplane is usually in way too steep of a bank to stay level,
so it starts to fly towards the ground and can pick up too much speed faster
than you can blink your eyes. If somebody sees the ground rushing up and panics, they instinctively pull the nose of the airplane up to try to avoid crashing into the ground. However, in a steep bank, "up" (away from the belly of the airplane) is actually almost parallel to the ground. This only tightens the spiral, and one can certainly overstress the structure and literally rip the airplane apart.

However, in a spin, the airplane is again in a steep bank and descending in a turn, but the inside wing (the one pointing at the ground, and not at the sky) is not flying; only the outside wing is flying (the one pointing up into the sky). In a "spin," you cannot overstress the airplane and rip it apart. It's against the laws of physics, and is absolutely impossible. In fact, there are (very rare) occasions where a spin is the safest way to make a descent.

I'm a pilot for FedEx, with nearly 10,000 hours of flight time, or almost 100 hours to every one that JFK Jr. had. Not one of my pilot friends can say "I've never known anybody who died from making a stupid mistake in an airplane." We all know that it can, and does, happen, and to some very experienced pilots, not just novices like JFK Jr. It wasn't the first tragedy, and as long as people continue to overestimate their skills, it certainly won't be the last.

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You just won't ever win an argument with Isaac Newton and the laws of
physics, it's as simple as that.

--Nancy Lemmon

Subic Bay, the Philippines

Consider this.

1. JFK Jr. was trained at Flight Safety. It's the standard in the industry for airline pilots, and anyone who has the money to go there gets trained very, very well.

2. The SII does not easily go down at 5K per minute. It's a very safe airplane. The sink rate for that type of aircraft is consistent with a spin, not a spiral .

3. Recovery was not that hard, especially for someone who was doing a lot of flying -- 200 hours in a year is a lot of flying.

4. No radio calls at all. While it is true that a spiral or spin is easy to get into, even in the clouds a sink rate that fast would be noticed. Ears would be popping, the sound of air outside the plane rushing by. I'll take you up, blindfold you and then drop at that rate, and trust me, you will be painfully aware of the fall. If nothing else, the altimeter, unwinding like an alarm clock in a bad dream, would have been a warning. The turn rate indicator on its side and the altitude indicator would have been tumbling. Trust me, even a non-pilot would have known something was wrong! The mike button for the radio is on the yoke, [operated by] the press of the thumb and then speaking into the headset. He had to be on someone's frequency -- not a peep? At least a "HELP!"?

5. The SII doesn't spin easily. You have to work it into a spin. Given that it didn't spin, a spiral, or "graveyard spiral," would not have resulted in such an extreme drop rate.

I've been a pilot for almost 20 years. While it is easy to simply say "too much plane, too little pilot," careful examination of the facts and consideration of his training at Flight Safety tells me that there is much more to this than is being said. I am not a paranoid nut-case looking for a plot to off the guy. I'm just a pilot asking some very obvious questions that no one else seems to be asking.

--Dore Teichman


Salon Staff

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