JFK Jr.'s fatal mistakes

The final report on Kennedy's crash reveals a series of decisions that led him on a spiral crash course one year ago.


Phaedra Hise
July 15, 2000 3:00PM (UTC)

Ten days before the anniversary of his death, the National Transportation Safety Board released the results of its exhaustive investigation into the fatal plane crash of John F. Kennedy Jr. Not surprisingly, the NTSB concluded the fault was pilot error.

The report's glib summary makes the crash sound like an easily preventable accident. Several factors, the NTSB concluded, pointed to the pilot's "failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation."

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Having speculated about what might have led to the crash a year ago, I approached the NTSB's exhaustively researched report with more than average curiosity. Was there anything Kennedy could have done to avoid the crash that killed not just him, but his wife and her sister?

Spatial disorientation is aviation's top pilot-killer. With little warning, it can strike any pilot, who must then draw on tremendous confidence and training in order to survive. As a pilot without much flight time, Kennedy hadn't yet built up either.

He made a few questionable decisions. He never called Flight Service for aviation weather information, for instance, although FAA regulations state that a pilot "should." If he had, he would have learned simply that visibility along the route was quite good between 6 and 12 miles. Kennedy probably would have heard what briefers told another pilot flying from Teterboro, N.J., to Nantucket, Mass., at about the same time, "No adverse conditions. Have a great weekend."

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According to detailed weather information from the surrounding areas at the time of the accident, and reports handed out by Flight Service weather briefers, the haze wasn't expected to be treacherous. That's because it's almost constant in the summer, and area pilots learn to compensate for the gauzy effect.

Did Kennedy attempt a solo night flight too soon? The report reveals that he had more flight hours -- 310 -- than some sources believed at the time of his death. But he was only halfway through his instrument training at the respected Flight Safety Institute. Instructors quoted in the report generally agreed that Kennedy's skills were good.

But if he lost the horizon over the dark ocean between Point Judith and the Vineyard, he would have had to negotiate those few minutes of flight by following the gauges. And he may not have had the training for it.

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The first third of instrument training is learning to fly on the instruments. The second third is learning to navigate. The last third is training to trust it all, confident that the gauges are right and your instincts are wrong. The last third, apparently, is what Kennedy lacked.

Confidence is an issue in this crash. How much is too much? Too little and you're a cockpit hazard, unwilling to take control and command the machine. Too much and you take dangerous risks, stacking the accident odds steeply against yourself. Most pilots eventually figure out a good personal balance for risk-taking, but usually only after logging a few hundred hours of flight time -- solo flight time. Before that, they make mistakes, swinging back and forth between the two.

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For some reason, Kennedy liked to haul around a flight instructor when he went anywhere. Maybe he was logging instrument instruction hours, or maybe he wanted more training in the new Saratoga. The NTSB report estimates that Kennedy had about 310 flight hours, but only about 72 of those hours were solo, as pilot-in-command. When I had 310 hours, 253 of them were pilot-in-command. By that point I had already earned both my private and instrument ratings, and my training was hardly fast-track, interrupted by years of being broke and switching instructors.

Kennedy wasn't used to flying alone. But he was certainly used to that route. He'd flown it 35 times, 17 of them as pilot-in-command, and five at night. In 15 years of flying, I can't think of anywhere I've flown 35 times, let alone five of them at night. Kennedy had made all of those trips within the past 15 months. I think his familiarity with the route probably balanced out his lack of solo flight time and training, on a calm, fairly clear night.

So here's the picture. Pilot confidently plans a routine hop to a familiar airport on a fairly clear day. Then he starts running a little late. No big deal, the darkness, since his recent night flights included Vineyard landings. It's a wedding, for crying out loud, not exactly something to be late for. Trips like this are why we have airplanes in the first place, right?

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Then he gets up in the dusky sky and flies out over Point Judith, out to sea. Unexpectedly, he can't see the lights of the island. But he looks at his instruments, reassured to see that he's still flying straight and level. He starts his descent, fiddling with the radios a little bit as he straightens his turn toward the runway. Somehow, the station for the Vineyard weather briefing isn't working. (The report indicates he had the wrong frequency dialed in.)

Maybe he focuses on that a minute too long -- what is that frequency again? He rustles the maps to check his location, then notices that the airplane has started another turn. He straightens it out again, then realizes he has forgotten his landing checklist. The airplane is starting to get ahead of him, loading him up with tasks to perform. Next landing checklist item: "Fuel selector -- proper tank." After an hour of flying, it's time to switch tanks. He leans forward, head down, to rotate the switch. It's when he sits up, I would imagine, that spatial disorientation hits.

"Spatial disorientation." It doesn't mean that Kennedy simply got a little confused about which direction the plane pointed, or didn't notice for a second that the nose was aimed up instead of down. It's much more powerful than that. It's like sitting in an office chair with your eyes closed, then leaning slightly forward and spinning the chair to the left.

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Imagine, while you're leaning and spinning, that a little voice in your head is saying, "You're actually standing upright in your office. No, really, trust me." The aircraft's instruments are the equivalent of that little voice, and you have to listen to them even though your senses and instincts are screaming, "For God's sake, you idiot, stop spinning and stand up first!"

It can attack any pilot. There is no training that prevents spatial disorientation. Only the recovery can be learned, after hours of instrument training, hours that Kennedy didn't have. Disorientation is like ice and thunderstorms -- it's serious business and it scares all pilots.

Dunning Kennedy for his inability to survive aviation's No. 1 killer is ridiculous. I don't know a single pilot who could cast the first stone. We've all pulled up after a sweaty landing, shivering and mumbling, "Damn, I'll never do that again." We've all broken at least one FAA regulation. We've all made the wrong go/no-go decision and ended up bumping around too close to a storm cloud, wishing instead we had turned around and driven home from the airport.

Years ago, my husband made his own flight across Rhode Island Sound after the end of a long work day in Providence. Anxious to reach friends on Nantucket, he pushed himself to cross the ocean on a cloudy day, with no horizon. He had taken a few instrument lessons, and nervously relied on his sketchy training to get him across the ocean to the distant island.

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Shaken, he landed the airplane and immediately instituted a "three strikes, you're out" rule that he still uses. If there are three questionable factors in a proposed flight -- fatigue, questionable weather, low-time skills -- he doesn't go. Period. Nobody, not even 1,000-hour pilots, has enough confidence to single-handedly reverse forces of nature.

But Kennedy wasn't facing a no-go situation. He lacked flying hours, but the only way to get them was to fly. The NTSB report should mostly put the second-guessing to rest. Although the Bessette family had made gestures that looked like they were considering a lawsuit, the word now is that they will forgo it, though they may receive some compensation from the Kennedy estate.

In the early hours of our flying careers we're all woefully ignorant. But most of us are fortunate enough to learn from our mistakes.


Phaedra Hise

Phaedra Hise is a freelance journalist, author and pilot living in Richmond, Va. She writes about aviation frequently for Salon, and covers business and technology for national magazines and newspapers.

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