JFK Jr. report cites air disorientation

Friday, July 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Pilot probably lost sense of up, down in fatal nighttime crash into ocean

The crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. and two others probably occurred because he became disoriented and lost control of his single-engine airplane while flying over the ocean on a moonless night, federal investigators said Thursday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said pilot error was the probable cause of the July 16, 1999, accident that killed the 38-year-old son of the late president, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette. The plane crashed into the sea off Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

Mr. Kennedy's problems were probably caused by movement of fluid inside his inner ear that led to a condition known as "spatial disorientation," which can make it impossible for a pilot to tell up from down. The confusion is "often subtle in its onset, yet it is the most disabling and dangerous of all disorientation," the report stated.

For example, decelerating while turning one direction can create the sensation of turning the opposite direction. Or, an abrupt change from a climb to level flight can create the feeling of tumbling backward.

Mr. Kennedy did not have an instrument rating that would have qualified him to fly into conditions under which he would have to rely solely on the airplane's flight instruments.

On the night of the crash, weather reports along his route from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard showed that visibility was good enough to fly under visual flight rules. But experienced pilots interviewed by crash investigators said the ocean was covered by a blanket of haze that made it impossible to distinguish the horizon, the report said.
Mr. Kennedy's flight instructor had offered to fly with him, but Mr. Kennedy told him that "he wanted to do it alone," the report said. The instructor told investigators he would not have felt comfortable with Mr. Kennedy's ability to handle the conditions that he apparently encountered.

"Over the water is a pretty tough place to be on a moonless night," said Drew Steketee, senior vice president of communications for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents private aircraft operators. "In this case, he took the longest possible over-water route to Martha's Vineyard."

Though investigators placed the responsibility for the crash on Mr. Kennedy, they found he had more flying experience than initially thought. The single-engine pilot had flown about 310 hours and was halfway through his instrument training course.

They found that his sporty Piper Saratoga II was in good condition and appeared to be operating normally when it left the Essex County Airport in Caldwell, N.J.

Using information from air traffic radar, investigators determined that Mr. Kennedy probably ran into trouble when he began descending about 34 miles west of Martha's Vineyard, where he was supposed to drop off Lauren Bessette before heading on to Hyannis, Mass., for a wedding.

During the final two minutes of the flight, the airplane began climbing, then descended steeply and turned erratically from an altitude of 2,150 feet until it entered a final diving right turn that tightened to more than 4,700 feet per minute. Such a turn is known as a "graveyard spiral" because it gradually tightens and becomes more pronounced until the airplane crashes or begins to break up.

Examination of the shattered wreckage indicated the airplane's engine was running at top speed at impact. The airspeed indicator showed the airplane was traveling faster than its maximum reading of 210 knots (241.5 mph).