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.
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.