John F. Kennedy Jr. plane crash
|Date||July 16, 1999|
|Summary||Pilot error, spatial disorientation|
|Site||Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, U.S.
|Passengers||2 (Carolyn and Lauren Bessette)|
|Crew||1 (John F. Kennedy Jr.)|
|Aircraft type||Piper PA-32R-301, Saratoga II|
|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 airplane he was piloting crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The two passengers on board, Kennedy's wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister Lauren, were also killed. The Piper Saratoga light aircraft had departed from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, and its intended route was along the coastline of Connecticut and across Rhode Island Sound to Martha's Vineyard Airport.
The official investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that Kennedy fell victim to spatial disorientation while descending at night over water, consequently losing control of the aircraft. Kennedy did not hold an instrument rating and was certified to fly only under visual flight rules. However, at the time of the accident 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 Kennedy. The plane also carried his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette. Kennedy had purchased his plane three months before his death. 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 of Martha's Vineyard Airport before 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 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. the next day, the Kennedy family 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 on July 17. "But unfortunately, when you find certain pieces of evidence, you have to be prepared for anything".
That same day, President Bill Clinton spoke with Kennedy's older sister, Caroline, and called his paternal uncle, Ted Kennedy. 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. 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.
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".
On July 18, a Coast Guard admiral declared an end of hope that Kennedy and his passengers would be found alive. The Coast Guard regional commander stated that a crash victim afloat in the waters near Martha's Vineyard would survive 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."
On July 19, NOAA vessel Rude 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. the next day, 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.
Late on the afternoon of July 21, the divers recovered the bodies of Kennedy and the Bessette sisters. Divers found Carolyn's and Lauren's bodies near the fuselage, while Kennedy's body was still strapped in the pilot's 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 on July 21, the three bodies were taken from Hyannis to Duxbury, 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 also reported no visual horizon due to haze.
Possible contributing factors
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- 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), which allowed Kennedy to fly his plane that night despite his lack of an instrument rating, the visibility was very 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 also 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".
- Pilot experience
In 1998, Kennedy first obtained his private pilot license and did not possess an instrument rating, but he had received a "high performance airplane" endorsement and a complex airplane endorsement two months before the crash. Kennedy's 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 certificated flight instructor (CFI) on board, and only 48 minutes of that time was flown at night, which included just one night landing. 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.
- 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 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.
- Psychological stress
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".
- Pilot distraction
- 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., 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, 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 instead. 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.
- 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 night 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. The Briscoe spent about half an hour off the Vineyard's southwest coast. It was two or three miles away from the crash site.
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. During a public memorial service for Kennedy, his paternal uncle, U.S. Senator 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.||”|
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" between his two nieces, Rose and Tatiana, and nephew, John, who were among fourteen beneficiaries in the will.
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