John F. Kennedy Jr. plane crash

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John F. Kennedy Jr. plane crash
A Piper Saratoga similar to the one flown by John F. Kennedy Jr. on the night of the crash.
Accident summary
Date July 16, 1999 (1999-07-16)
Summary Pilot error, spatial disorientation
Site Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, U.S.
41°18′04″N 70°57′32″W / 41.301°N 70.959°W / 41.301; -70.959Coordinates: 41°18′04″N 70°57′32″W / 41.301°N 70.959°W / 41.301; -70.959[1]
Passengers 2 (Carolyn and Lauren Bessette)
Crew 1 (John F. Kennedy Jr.)
Fatalities 3 (all)
Survivors 0
Aircraft type Piper PA-32R-301, Saratoga II
Operator private
Registration N9253N
Flight origin Essex County Airport, New Jersey (CDW)
Destination Martha's Vineyard Airport, Massachusetts (MVY)

On July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. died 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 Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, were also killed. The flight had departed 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 its final destination of Martha's Vineyard Airport (MVY).

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the crash was caused by: "the pilot's failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation".[1] Kennedy did not hold a certification for instrument flight rules (IFR), but he did continue to fly after weather conditions obscured visual landmarks.


On the evening of July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. piloted a Piper Saratoga II HP to attend a wedding of his cousin, Rory, to Mark Bailey. The plane also carried his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette. Kennedy had purchased his plane from Air Bound Aviation three months before his death.[2] The Bessette sisters were in the second row of seats, which faced the rear of the plane and were back to back with the pilot's seat.[3]

Timeline of events[edit]

The locations of the accident and departure airports shown on a map of US.
Essex County Airport
Essex County Airport
Martha's Vineyard Airport
Martha's Vineyard Airport
John F. Kennedy Jr. plane crash
Location of the accident and departure airports

Kennedy had checked in with the air traffic control tower at Martha's Vineyard Airport before departure. At 8:39 p.m., Kennedy's plane departed from Essex County Airport. At 10:05 p.m., the air traffic controller at Martha's Vineyard Airport contacted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) office in Bridgeport, Connecticut about Kennedy's plane, but was told that no information could be released over the phone.[4] At 2:15 a.m. the next day, the Kennedys reported to the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, that the plane had not arrived. At 4 a.m., the Coast Guard began their search and rescue operation to find Kennedy's plane. The day after Kennedy's disappearance, his cousin, Anthony Stanislas Radziwill, told the press that if Kennedy was still alive "he'll find a way to get out. He possesses the will to survive, enough will for all three of them".[5] Officials were not optimistic about finding Kennedy after several pieces of debris from his plane were recovered in the Atlantic Ocean. "There is always hope", Coast Guard Lt. Gary Jones said on July 17. "But unfortunately, when you find certain pieces of evidence, you have to be prepared for anything".[6]

That same day, President Bill Clinton spoke with Kennedy's older sister, Caroline, and called his paternal uncle, Ted. Clinton also spoke with Andrew Cuomo, who at the time was married to Kennedy's cousin, Kerry. "He wanted to let them know he was thinking about them, that we'll do everything we can, and that our prayers are with them", Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart said.[6] Clinton ordered warships of the U.S. Navy to assist in the search for Kennedy's plane. Critics argued that this was an abuse of taxpayer dollars, as no ordinary citizen would receive similar treatment.[7]

On July 18, a Coast Guard admiral declared an end of hope that Kennedy could be found alive. Clinton said that afternoon that the Kennedys had "suffered much, and given more". He also called for the Kennedys to feel "the strength of God, the love of their friends and the prayers of their fellow citizens". The Coast Guard regional commander had conceded that the average crash victim afloat in waters like these clings to life less than a third of the 40 hours that had passed. State police divers were told later that night they would begin searching for bodies and wreckage at "first light." "It gives the family a sense of closure when you recover someone", William Freeman of the Massachusetts Underwater Recovery Unit said in an interview. "That's the only gratifying thing about it. Otherwise, you have to be a very different person to do the job. That's not to say it doesn't bother you".[8]

On July 19, the fragments of Kennedy's plane were found by the NOAA vessel Rude using side-scan sonar. At 11:30 p.m., on July 20th, the fuselage of Kennedy's plane was finally located on the ocean floor by the salvage ship USNS Grasp (T-ARS-51).[9] Navy divers were allowed to descend into the fifty-two degree water. The divers found part of the shattered plane strewn over a broad area of seabed 120 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.[10]

The search ended on the late afternoon hours of July 21, when the bodies of Kennedy and the Bessette sisters were recovered from the ocean floor by Navy divers. The discovery was made after examining high-resolution images resulting from a three-dimensional map which the Rude had produced by scanning the ocean bottom.[11] Divers found Carolyn and Lauren's bodies near the twisted and broken fuselage, and Kennedy's body was still strapped in the pilot's seat.[5] Admiral Richard M. Larrabee of the Coast Guard said that all three bodies were "near and under" the fuselage, still strapped in.[12] The bodies of Kennedy and the Bessette sisters were recovered from the ocean floor by Navy divers and taken to the county medical examiner's office by motorcade.[9][13] In the evening of July 21, autopsies at the county medical examiner's office revealed that the crash victims had died upon impact. At the same time, the Kennedy and Bessette families announced their plans for memorial services.[13] In the late hours of July 21, the three bodies were taken from Hyannis to Duxbury, where they were cremated in the Mayflower Cemetery crematorium.[14]


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) declared that Kennedy's plane had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha's Vineyard; the probable cause of the crash was pilot error: "[Kennedy]'s failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation".[15] Kennedy was not qualified to fly his plane by "instruments only". The crash occurred in conditions not legally requiring such qualification. Other pilots besides Kennedy flying similar routes reported no visual horizon due to haze.[16]

Possible contributing factors[edit]

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 his plane that night despite his lack of an instrument 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 besides Kennedy were flying similar routes on the night of the accident reported no visual horizon while flying over the water because of haze. Also, the NTSB reported on one pilot that cancelled a similar flight that evening due to "poor" weather. 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 and did not possess an instrument rating, but had received a "high performance airplane" endorsement in 1998 and a complex airplane endorsement 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 flight time in the accident airplane was about 36 hours, of which about 9.4 hours were at night. About 0.8 hour of that was flown at night and included a night landing. Approximately 3 hours of that flight time were without a CFI on board, and only 48 minutes of that time was flown at night, which included just one night landing.[1] It is not clear how much of his total flight experience was in the plane type that crashed or Kennedy's other, more basic plane the Cessna Skylane 182. Fifteen months before the crash, Kennedy had flown about 35 flights either to or from northern New Jersey and the Martha's Vineyard area. Kennedy flew more than 17 of these legs without a CFI on board, including at least five at night. His last known flight in his airplane without a CFI on board happened two months before the crash.[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 his plane, including flights from CDW to MVY. His instructors said he required help working the rudder pedals to taxi and land the plane because of his 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 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 by the time of the crash;[17] Kennedy had spent the final three nights of his life apart from his wife at a New York City hotel.[18] Additionally, Kennedy's magazine, George, was in serious financial trouble. According to the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM): "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 same path of American Airlines Flight 1484, which was on the approach to Westchester County Airport.[1] Controllers instructed the American Airlines jet to descend to avoid a collision. The two aircraft came "uncomfortably close".[18]

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 his flight, Kennedy did not contact any air traffic controllers; during the flight, he never requested help or declared an emergency.[19] Under the conditions of his flight, Kennedy was not required to file a flight plan, and because he did not, no one knew his exact route or expected time of his arrival. According to the 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 four miles at Martha's Vineyard.

Late departure

The flight was originally scheduled for daylight hours, but had to be postponed after Kennedy's sister-in-law was delayed at work. Heavy traffic further delayed Kennedy's flight and pushed it back until after dark. Originally planned to depart at 6:00 p.m., the flight departed at 8:39 p.m. instead, nearly a half hour past sunset. At the time of takeoff, 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 instead. According to the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, crossing large bodies of water at night may 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.

Foot injury

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

Incorrect radio frequencies

While the NTSB examined the wreckage, they soon 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]


On the morning of July 22, relatives brought the "cremated remains" of Kennedy onto the USS Briscoe. His ashes were later scattered into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.[20][21] The ship was used for the public memorial service with the permission of U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen.[7] The Briscoe spent about half an hour off the Vineyard's southwest coast. It was two or three miles away from the crash site.[20]

President Bill Clinton ordered that the flag at the White House and those in public areas across the country be lowered to half-mast to honor the passing of Kennedy.[7] During a public memorial service for Kennedy, his paternal uncle, U.S. Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy, stated:

Kennedy's last will and testament, signed 18 months before his death, was stipulated that his personal belongings, property, and holdings were to be "evenly distributed" between his three nieces and nephews, Rose, Tatiana, and John, who were among fourteen beneficiaries in the will.[5]

Popular culture[edit]

Episodes of Final 24 and Air Crash Investigations both explores the details of Kennedy's life and death and the events surrounding the plane crash.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h NTSB Accident Report NYC99MA178; NTSB, 2000-12-12
  2. ^ Heymann, p. 32.
  3. ^ Heymann, p. 36.
  4. ^ "Audio clip on JFK Jr.'s plane released". USA Today. February 6, 2007. 
  5. ^ a b c Heymann, p. 499.
  6. ^ a b Grunwald, Michael (July 18, 1999). "JFK Jr. Feared Dead in Plane Crash". Washington Post. 
  7. ^ a b c Gellman, Barton; Ferdinand, Pamela (1999-07-23). "Kennedy, Bessette Sisters Given Shipboard Rites". Washington Post. p. A1. Retrieved 2008-05-22. 
  8. ^ Gellman, Barton (July 19, 1999). "No Hope of Survivors, Admiral Tells Families". Washington Post. 
  9. ^ a b "John F. Kennedy, Jr. Plane Crash and Search Time Line". The Washington Post. 1999. 
  10. ^ Klein, p. 222.
  11. ^ "Divers Found Bodies". Chicago Tribune. July 22, 1999. 
  12. ^ Allen, Mike (July 22, 1999). "Bodies From Kennedy Crash Are Found". New York Times. 
  13. ^ a b "Crash and Search Time Line". The Washington Post. July 22, 1999. Retrieved 29 November 2012. 
  14. ^ Maxwell, Paula (July 28, 1999). "Kennedy cremated in Duxbury". Duxbury Clipper (Duxbury. MA). Retrieved 29 November 2012. 
  15. ^ "NTSB report NYC99MA178". 
  16. ^ "NTSB report NYC99MA178 Full Narative". 
  17. ^ Book Details John F. Kennedy, Jr., Carolyn Jeanne Bessette Marital Problems Fox News, 2003-07-01
  18. ^ a b JFK Jr.: Christopher Andersen USA Today, 2000-07-12
  19. ^ John F. Kennedy Jr.'s last radio comments were routine, 2007-02-07
  20. ^ a b "Loved Ones Say Farewell". Chicago Tribune. July 22, 1999. 
  21. ^ Gellman, Barton; Ferdinand, Pamela (1999-07-23). "Kennedy, Bessettes Given Shipboard Rites". Washington Post. pp. A1. Retrieved 2008-05-22. 
  22. ^ "Edward M. Kennedy's eulogy to his nephew John F. Kennedy, Jr.". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. 

External links[edit]