The Kennedy Crash: Facing the Facts
This long-time aviator often receives questions from non-pilots as to the cause of the crash that took the lives of John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife and her sister. Here is what happened:
That unfortunate crash occurred because a travel rule applicable to cars, trains, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, etc. was broken. That rule is: There is nothing so important that needs doing tomorrow that is worth dying for today. The logic behind this rule is solid. If your travel costs you your life today, then you’ll never get to do whatever it is you were supposed to do tomorrow.
In the case of the Kennedy crash, the travel was being performed to attend a wedding the next day. The relatively inexperienced pilot, John F. Kennedy, Jr., found himself under natural and normal family pressures to arrive on Martha’s Vineyard in time to attend the pre-wedding celebrations and the wedding itself the following day.
Was the pilot equipped and trained to make that flight from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard? Yes, under normal conditions, he was. From what we know, young Kennedy had a good instructor and Kennedy was a good student. The aircraft being flown was well equipped and maintained. The aircraft didn’t cause the crash.
But the trip was not undertaken on what one might call “normal conditions.” For a pilot with relatively few flying hours and not yet rated as an instrument pilot, that flight should have been undertaken in broad daylight and in good weather under what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) calls: Visual Flight Rules or VFR.
The scenario tells us the pilot planned his flight so that it would be completed in broad daylight, in good weather and under VFR. But the sister-in-law was delayed in reaching the airport and the flight took off without enough daylight remaining at the end of the route to meet those pre-conditions.
Then, when the aircraft got out over the ocean in the vicinity of Martha’s Vineyard, a combination of hazy sky conditions and a phenomenon associated with flying over water at dusk or night that can lead to vertigo came together to produce what amounted to instrument flying conditions or the need to be able to control and maneuver the aircraft under what the FAA calls: Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).
Had the pilot been trained in night flying? Yes, the FAA requires some night flying training in order to obtain a private pilot certificate. Had the pilot been trained in flying by reference to his instruments only? Yes, the FAA requires some of that as well.
But was the pilot qualified and able to handle the weather, light, sky and over-water conditions in which he found himself? Obviously, not. Indeed the FAA radar track shows normal flight until the pilot turned off the autopilot and began to hand fly the aircraft down into the haze surrounding Martha’s Vineyard. He lost control.
So, how could this particular accident have been prevented? Given the delayed departure and all of the weather, light, sky and over-water vision consequences that flowed from that delay, a non-instrument-rated pilot should not have attempted the flight. Kennedy money could have bought several alternate means of travel.
So, what caused this tragic accident? Pure and simple, it was pilot error. And it was the kind of error that neither the Congress nor the FAA can pass laws or make regulations against. Try as it might, no government can legislate or mandate common sense. Young Kennedy let his sense of family obligation overcome his common sense.
But this tragedy is now taking on an even darker political aspect. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to whom we look for science-based, objective investigation and reporting of accidents, is shying away from using the term: pilot error. That’s odd. The NTSB has always been quick to blame pilots in the past. But then, they weren’t dealing with members of the Kennedy political dynasty.
Dr. William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and instrument-rated pilot, has been flying for 32 years.