John F. Kennedy, Jr. plane crash

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John F. Kennedy, Jr. Piper Saratoga Plane Crash
A Piper Saratoga similar to the one flown by John F. Kennedy, Jr..
Accident summary
Date July 16, 1999 (1999-07-16)
Summary Pilot error
Site Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, U.S.
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 (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) determined 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]


Haze and visibility[edit]

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 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[edit]

Kennedy obtained his private pilot license in April 1998 and did not possess an instrument rating, but had received a "high performance airplane" endorsement in June 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 experience flying his plane without a certified flight instructor (CFI) on board was about 72 hours. His estimated flight time in his plane was about 36 hours, of which 9.4 hours were at night. 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 this 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[edit]

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[edit]

The NTSB suggested that Kennedy's marriage may have contributed to a source of stress by the time of the crash;[2] Kennedy had spent the final three nights of his life apart from his wife at a New York City hotel.[3] 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[edit]

Kennedy's plane flew into the 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".[3]

No flight plan or request for help[edit]

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.[4] Under the conditions of his flight, Kennedy was not required to file a flight plan, and although 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[edit]

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[edit]

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 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.

Injured foot[edit]

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.

Wrong frequencies[edit]

While the NTSB examined the wreckage, they discovered that both of Kennedy's radios had incorrect frequencies selected (he 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]


Search and recovery operations[edit]

On July 16 at 10:05 p.m., the 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.[5] At 2:15 a.m. the next day, the Kennedys reported to the Cape Cod Coast Guard that the plane had not arrived. At 4 a.m., the Coast Guard began a search and rescue operation to find the missing plane. 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). On the afternoon of July 21st, Kennedy's body and the bodies of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette were recovered from the ocean floor by Navy divers and taken to the county medical examiner's office by motorcade.[6]

Memorial service and public observances[edit]

During a public memorial service for Kennedy, his paternal uncle, U.S. Senator Edward M. "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.[7]

U.S. 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. At President Clinton's orders, warships of the U.S. Navy had assisted in the search for the crashed plane. Critics argued that this was an abuse of taxpayer dollars, as no ordinary citizen would receive similar treatment.[8] On the evening of July 21, autopsies revealed that Kennedy had died upon impact.[6] In the late hours of July 21, Kennedy was taken from Hyannis to Duxbury, Massachusetts, where his body were cremated in the Mayflower Cemetery crematorium.[9] In the morning of July 22, Kennedy's ashes were scattered from the Navy destroyer USS Briscoe and into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. The ship was used for the public memorial service with the permission of U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h NTSB Accident Report NYC99MA178; NTSB, 2000-12-12
  2. ^ Book Details John F. Kennedy, Jr., Carolyn Jeanne Bessette Marital Problems Fox News, 2003-07-01
  3. ^ a b JFK Jr.: Christopher Andersen USA Today, 2000-07-12
  4. ^ John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s last radio comments were routine, 2007-02-07
  5. ^ "Audio clip on JFK Jr.'s plane released". USA Today. February 6, 2007. 
  6. ^ a b "John F. Kennedy, Jr. Plane Crash and Search Time Line". The Washington Post. 1999. 
  7. ^ "Edward M. Kennedy's eulogy to his nephew John F. Kennedy, Jr.". John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. 
  8. ^ a b Gellman, Barton; Ferdinand, Pamela (1999-07-23). "Kennedy, Bessette Sisters Given Shipboard Rites". Washington Post. p. A1. Retrieved 2008-05-22. 
  9. ^ Maxwell, Paula (July 28, 1999). "Kennedy Cremated in Duxbury". Duxbury Clipper.