John F. Kennedy Jr. plane crash
A Piper Saratoga similar to the accident aircraft
|Date||July 16, 1999|
|Summary||Pilot error, spatial disorientation|
|Site||Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Aircraft type||Piper PA-32R-301, Saratoga II|
|Flight origin||Essex County Airport, New Jersey (CDW)|
|Destination||Martha's Vineyard Airport, Massachusetts (MVY)|
|Passengers||2 (Carolyn and Lauren Bessette)|
|Crew||1 (John F. Kennedy Jr.)|
John F. Kennedy Jr. was an American lawyer, journalist, magazine publisher, and the son of President John F. Kennedy. On July 16, 1999, Kennedy died when his airplane he was flying crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Kennedy's wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, were also on board and died. The Piper Saratoga had departed from Essex County Airport, and its intended route was along the coastline of Connecticut and across Rhode Island Sound to its final destination of Martha's Vineyard Airport.
The official investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that Kennedy fell victim to spatial disorientation while he was descending over water at night and consequently lost control of his plane. Kennedy did not hold an instrument rating and therefore he was only certified to fly under visual flight rules. At the time of the crash, the weather and light conditions were such that all basic landmarks were obscured, making visual flight challenging, although legally still permissible.
On the evening of July 16, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr. piloted a Piper Saratoga to attend the wedding of his cousin, Rory, to Mark Bailey. The plane also carried Kennedy's wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette. Kennedy had purchased his plane three months before the crash. The Bessette sisters were seated in the second row of seats, which faced the rear of the plane and were back-to-back with the pilot's seat.
Timeline of events
Kennedy checked in with the air traffic control tower at Martha's Vineyard Airport before his departure. At 8:39 p.m. on July 16, Kennedy 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 failure to arrive, but was told that no information could be released over the phone.
Coast Guard notified
At 2:15 a.m. on July 17, the Kennedys reported to the local Coast Guard Air Station that the plane had not arrived. At 4 a.m., the U.S. Coast Guard began a search and rescue operation. Kennedy's 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." Officials were not optimistic about finding Kennedy alive after several pieces of debris from his plane were recovered in the Atlantic Ocean. "There is always hope," Coast Guard Lt. Gary Jones said. "But unfortunately, when you find certain pieces of evidence, you have to be prepared for anything."
President Clinton's response
President Bill Clinton spoke with Kennedy's older sister, Caroline, and later called her uncle, Ted. Clinton also spoke to Andrew Cuomo, who was married to Kennedy's cousin, Kerry, at the time. "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. Clinton ordered U.S. Navy warships to assist in the search for Kennedy's plane. Critics argued that the search was an abuse of taxpayer dollars, as no ordinary citizen would receive similar treatment. Clinton said that afternoon that the Kennedys had "suffered much, and given more", and he also called for them to feel "the strength of God, the love of their friends and the prayers of their fellow citizens".
Debris and bodies recovered
On July 19, the NOAA vessel Rude finally located fragments of Kennedy's plane using side-scan sonar. The Rude captured high-resolution images which were used to create a three-dimensional map of the ocean floor. At 11:30 p.m. on July 20, the salvage ship USNS Grasp (T-ARS-51) identified the plane's fuselage. Navy divers found parts of the plane strewn over a broad area of seabed 120 feet (37 m) below the surface.
On the afternoon of July 21, divers recovered the bodies of Kennedy and the Bessette sisters. Divers found the Bessette sisters were near the fuselage, while Kennedy himself was still strapped in his seat. Coast Guard Admiral Richard M. Larrabee said that all three bodies were "near and under" the fuselage, still strapped in. The bodies were taken to the county medical examiner's office by motorcade. Autopsies on the evening of July 21 performed by the county medical examiner's office found that all three had died upon impact. At the same time, the Kennedy and Bessette families announced their plans for memorial services. After the autopsies were completed, the three bodies were taken from Hyannis to Duxbury, Massachusetts, where they were cremated in the Mayflower Cemetery crematorium.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officially 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". 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 on the night of the accident reported no visual horizon due to haze.
Possible contributing factors
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Haze and visibility
Atmospheric conditions along Kennedy's flight path on the night of the crash were occasionally hazy, which can lead to spatial disorientation for pilots. However, the weather was officially listed as "visual meteorological conditions" (VMC), which allowed Kennedy to fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) rather than Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), as he lacked an instrument rating. However, the visibility was very poor in Essex County, New Jersey, and airports along Kennedy's flight path reported visibilities between 5 and 8 miles with haze and a few clouds. Some pilots flying similar routes as Kennedy on the night of the accident reported no visual horizon over water because of haze. Also, the NTSB reported on one pilot who 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".
- Pilot experience
Kennedy first obtained his private pilot license in 1998, and received "high performance airplane" and "complex airplane" endorsements two months before the crash. His estimated total flight experience before the crash 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. Approximately 3 hours of that flight time were without a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) on board, and only 48 minutes of that time was flown at night, which included a night landing.
It is not clear how much of his total flight experience was in the plane type that crashed or in 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.
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 later 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 Kennedy 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 night 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.
The NTSB suggested that Kennedy's marriage may have contributed to a source of stress by the time of the crash. 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."
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., Kennedy's plane departed at 8:39 p.m. instead, nearly a half-hour past sunset. At the time of the takeoff, the moon was just above the horizon and provided very little illumination.
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. 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, as reported in the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, 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.
Flight over featureless, open water
Shortly 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 very 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.
Six weeks before the crash, Kennedy had fractured his left ankle in a paragliding accident over the Memorial Day weekend. He had surgery and wore a cast which was removed just the day before the fatal flight. He still walked with a limp on the day of the accident. During his interviews, Kennedy's orthopaedic surgeon stated that, at 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 accidentally 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 declined to comment on the contribution this factor had in the crash, if any.
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. The ship was used for the public memorial service with the permission of U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Briscoe spent about half an hour off the Vineyard's southwest coast. She was two or three miles away from the crash site.
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.
Kennedy's last will and testament, signed 18 months before his death, stipulated that all of his personal belongings, property, and holdings were to be "evenly distributed" among his two nieces, Rose and Tatiana, and nephew, John, who were among 14 beneficiaries in the will.
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