JFK Jr.: 10 Years After the Crash

Book Review By DREW STEKETEE © 2010 All Rights Reserved

Seeing “10 Mistakes JFK, Jr. Made” in a pilot magazine, I wanted to read this “pilot’s perspective” on the infamous July 1999 crash. The book, “JFK, Jr. — 10 Years After the Crash, A Pilot’s Perspective,” is the result of 10 years of research by Dr. Douglas Lonnstrom, a GA pilot and college professor.

Is it really for pilots or just by a pilot? There is much to recommend this small book, despite lengthy sections of mostly general interest and a glossary clearly for non-pilots. In fact, that reader might well ask if a better general account had already been penned by the social historians, Kennedy insiders and news reporters that Lonnstrom read.

DSC_0822-400x265 Knowledgeable experts could also question the depth of analysis by this devoted 20-year 172 pilot. For instance, is there any personal expertise in high-performance singles like the Piper Saratoga? The author apparently relied on the input of a colleague who owns a PA-32; he himself seems awed by the big single. Other pilots, however, might describe the Saratoga as a relative pussycat in speed, handling and “slipperiness” compared to — say — a Bonanza. But yes, horsepower, torque, P-factor and retractable gear were a big step up from Kennedy’s 182, especially with his injured left ankle.

While relying on others’ expertise and accounts, the author’s sincerity and motivation are obvious. He was drawn in, like many others tangentially brushed by this tragedy. Lonnstrom had flown from Cape Cod that same day. At his own level of pilot experience, he himself was mightily challenged by a particularly tough East Coast summer haze. And he offers other valuable perspectives.

Pilots should heed Lonnstrom’s comments on risk, and risks in GA flying. They may be puzzled or annoyed by his continuing perspective “as a statistician” debating (with himself) the irrefutable “numbers” of flying versus its art. But he doesn’t lie. When one’s flying skills and training don’t add up against challenging or changing conditions, the result is quickly a forgone conclusion.

Seeking aeronautical enlightenment, I was distracted by several chapters on the dramatic post-crash timeline as it unfolded — again, probably there for the general reader. But don’t ignore the details of Kennedy’s pre-flight day, the tortuous delays reaching the airport, and the impossible timing of a day VFR flight tightly planned against sunset. Every pilot can relate and learn.

Has Lonnstrom divined this crash’s root causes and lessons as I learned them? (I was GA’s prime media spokesman for the crash.) I’d say he got most of it, save a few perspectives I’m keeping as my own for now. (The author mentions JFK, Jr.’s ankle injury at length, but only surmises a conclusion. He delves with little insight into the media frenzy. Phil Boyer’s foreword short-changes that, too, perhaps because he was at first caught in Alaska, then in Washington primarily handling lawmakers bent on “doing something.” But here, Boyer does offer important advice on taking a lesson from JFK, Jr.)

Pilots might best reflect on the early chapters, then on Lonnstrom’s “John’s fatal 32 mistakes.” Afterward, examine your own flying career, training, approach to risk and pre-flight fitness to fly. Much is made of JFK, Jr.’s marital problems and business pressures, not to mention mission fixation and over-confidence. Nota bene.

Most of us “working the crash” zeroed in immediately on low time-in-type, low night hours and shockingly few hours solo PIC needed to build confidence, problem-solving skills and “seasoning.” Lonnstrom doesn’t miss these, but zeroes in more on deceptive automated weather observations, failure to seek weather updates or controller assistance, and the finality of unrecognized graveyard spirals. Whatever applies to your level (or lack) of knowledge and skill, read and learn. Avoid this cruel fate; save your loved ones from similar error and omission.

On first reading, I found only a possible flaw or two. Some may question a conclusion or speculation here and there. In total, I found this an instructive replay and good analysis by a motivated, intelligent and well-intentioned GA pilot. More could have been made of the radar track illustration of JFK, Jr.’s final loss of control, but photos are germane and instructive. Baby pictures of “Camelot’s son” and his early fascination with flying rip at your heart.

This probably isn’t the tragedy’s definitive dramatic account or most expert treatment of aeronautical error and causation. But the general reader may gain new insight without the technicalities and jargon of an NTSB report.

For pilots, it’s a valuable splash of cold water in the face of any who think that any amount of enthusiasm, money, charisma, bravado, sheer will or good luck will long prevail when GA airplanes are put to real work.

“JFK, Jr. – 10 Years after the Crash” (204 pages, 16 illustrations) is available through Amazon.

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, Senior VP-Communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

Comments

  1. Pete Schwartz says

    Only JFK Jr would know what in fact happened, RIP. What we know through NTSB is clear:

    http://aircrashed.com/cause/cNYC99MA178.shtml

    “A performance study of the radar data revealed that the target began a descent from 5,500 feet about 34 miles west of MVY. The speed during the descent was calculated to be about 160 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS), and the rate of descent was calculated to have varied between 400 and 800 feet per minute (fpm). About 2138, the target began a right turn in a southerly direction. About 30 seconds later, the target stopped its descent at 2,200 feet and began a climb that lasted another 30 seconds. During this period of time, the target stopped the turn, and the airspeed decreased to about 153 KIAS. About 2139, the target leveled off at 2,500 feet and flew in a southeasterly direction. About 50 seconds later, the target entered a left turn and climbed to 2,600 feet. As the target continued in the left turn, it began a descent that reached a rate of about 900 fpm. When the target reached an easterly direction, it stopped turning; its rate of descent remained about 900 fpm. At 2140:15, while still in the descent, the target entered a right turn. As the target’s turn rate increased, its descent rate and airspeed also increased. The target’s descent rate eventually exceeded 4,700 fpm. The target’s last radar position was recorded at 2140:34 at an altitude of 1,100 feet. (For a more detailed description of the target’s [accident airplane's] performance, see Section, “Tests and Research,” Subsection, “Aircraft Performance Study.”)”

    I think this article is just another conspiracy theory with the goal of generating profit to the tabloid. Anyway, just my 2 cents…

  2. Greg Sutliff says

    As a former PA-32 owner (later in higher performance aircraft) my observation at the time, and now, is that a simple push of the autopilot button would have saved the day. I thik that I read that his instruction had been focused on “hand flying”, to his peril.

  3. Larry D. Butler, Ph. D. says

    The story of JFK Jr.’s demise at the controls of his Piper in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, is a “classic” in the annals of aviation history. That being that he managed to make every “rookie” mistake possible (and then some), that brought his flight and his life (and that of his wife and her sister-in-law Lauren) to a tragic end.

    The poor understanding of weather analysis. The poor flying skills (low total time and low time in model). The complete inability to fly in instrument weather. The poor understanding of spatial disorientation. A complete lack of understanding of the “ever present reality” of the “graveyard spiral”, who’s typical life span is a mere 90 seconds.

    It was my impression then and remains to this day, that his upbringing, Kennedy family “air of supremacy” (above all things) and “ease of success”, that pervaded his teen years and adult life, dictated his eventual demise in the “critical environment” and “unrelenting forgiveness” of poor weather flying, for which he was completely unprepared to deal with!

    That environment is completely “intolerant” of poor training, lack of personal skill in the aviation environment, overall skill and total lack of experience in; night flying, lack of instrument training/qualification, decision making and weather knowledge, more specifically; understanding what he was getting into. In order to “preclude” this event, Kennedy needed to have “vastly more” and “greater depth of instruction” than he received from his Flight Instructor. Many, many times in my career in aviation, I have witnessed this “phenomenon. It is found in the “modest Flight Instructor”, who has as yet, “grown no bark” upon his persona! He succumbs to and is “cowed” by the “awe of wealth”, the magnificence of power, success, celebrity or the “desire to please”. These are luxuries a Flight Instructor cannot afford, under any circumstances! For all the young and or aspiring Flight Instructors out there, take this as a warning: Your duty to ensure that “superior, comprehensive and complete instruction” comes first and foremost! Settle for nothing less or don’t sign them off!

    Kennedy was even warned and admonished by a high-time Saberliner pilot not to “risk” the trip, with such poor weather along the route and at the destination, but his upbringing and “never challenged self-assuredness” caused him to ignore it! His two passengers trusted him implicitly, based upon his “apparent personal success, charm and stature” (which never translates into skill and ability in the flying environment, as attested to by the many doctors and lawyers who have died at the controls of a Bonanza or light twin)

    The typically prudent “low-time” pilot would have had far more humility and less aggressiveness in the same situation. Kennedy on the other hand was taught from childhood that there were “no obstacles for a Kennedy”! This disaster goes far beyond just simple “get there itis”. In my view, Kennedy’s upbringing and wealth played “as great a role” in his “untimely demise”, as did the actual aeronautical mistakes themselves.

    I always viewed this as a great tragedy that didn’t have to happen. The Kennedy family arrogance pervaded all and led him to this ultimate, untimely and unnecessary end. I also believe that had his father lived, he would have been able to instill in his son the humility, self-examination and self-realization, that a child desperately needs and requires.

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