Log Cabin Chronicles

Why John Kennedy Died
Letter from a pilot to his teenaged son
who thinks he wants to fly


The classic book of flight instruction is Wolfgang Langewiesche's "Stick and Rudder." You wonder whether John Kennedy had the opportunity to read it. The appendix contains a chapter by Leighton Collins on "The Dangers of the Air"

    "The spin. At this point the pilot is bewildered. He is thinking not about a spin but wondering why that left wing won't come up and why the nose won't come up and he is using all his strength pulling back on the stick...70 percent of all fatalities."
Like many people I was saddened by the death of John Kennedy and his wife and sister-in-law this past week. My sixteen-year-old son recently expressed his interest to me about learning to fly and since there is a lesson in this accident for all pilots and prospective pilots, I sat down and wrote him a letter which I hope he will fold up and put in his wallet and read once in a while:
    John Kennedy was 38. He wasn't a kid. He was a full-grown man who assumed responsibility as pilot-in-command that fateful night for two passengers along with him.

    What really troubles me when I look at this particular accident is that it would have been so easy to avoid, especially perhaps if Kennedy's instructor(s) had driven home to him the necessity of always being vigilant to the one thing that has killed more pilots than anything else: "get home it is."

    As a high-performance, multi-engine and Class 1 instrument rated pilot with several thousands of hours of experience, I've had my share of "get home itis" but I learned from good instructors and pilot-mentors early on it was better to spend an extra night in a hotel or hop the airlines back if I was tired or not up to the flight or weather.

    What Kennedy's unfortunate accident is all about is poor judgment and ego. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Misjudgment #1. Kennedy reportedly had just that day had a cast removed from a broken foot. He was observed prior to departure by another pilot as "hobbling." Complete medical fitness is essential especially if you are to undertake a flight at the extreme edge of your experience level. Otherwise, don't go.

    Misjudgment #2. The stress and tension of business problems at George were no doubt very much on Kennedy's mind. If you have other things on your mind, you shouldn't go.

    Misjudgment #3. The pressure to go. A wedding to attend the next day. This is classic "get home itis" coupled with the ego drive to arrive in your own plane. Usually this happens in combination with a "weather decision." This was the classic example of "compounding" motivations pushing someone into the wrong decision. The weather wasn't bad but it was borderline instrument conditions as there was extreme haze.

    Misjudgment #4. For someone so inexperienced without any instrument rating, without much night experience, a night flight over water under extreme haze is an instrument flight and is a challenge for any pilot.

    Misjudgement #5. Kennedy didn't file a flight plan which is a pretty good indication of the level of the rigor and professionalism of the training he received. It should have been drilled into him a thousand times over. Every responsible pilot always files a flight plan. Period.

    No one came looking for five hours even though it probably wouldn't have made a difference in this case. It would have made a difference perhaps in a controlled ditching because of engine failure. Kennedy as pilot-in-command had an absolute responsibility to his passengers to file a flight plan.

    It was reckless not to do so in that he was flying a single engine plane at night over water with passengers. No one in Bridgeport Flight Service is to blame for anything. The responsibility for a flight plan rested on Kennedy alone.

    Misjudgment #6. The craft reportedly carried no life jackets. If this is true, it is a further indication of a lax approach to airmanship. This was a wealthy man who bought an expensive plane yet didn't provide for lifejackets and an inflatable raft not only for himself but for his passengers even though he flew over water regularly in a single engine plane. This is just plain foolish.

    Misjudgment #7. He reportedly made no radio calls or contact with New York Center to request radar flight following as every VFR (visual flight rules) flight can do. In fact, all air traffic control centers appreciate this as then the traffic is identified and known to them and they can alert instrument flights as to the position, direction and intentions of the VFR flight.

    If he had filed a flight plan and requested radar flight following he would have been tracked and any rescue; if there was any point to a rescue, would have been started a lot earlier. Moreover any professional pilot who files a flight plan also files position reports from time to time if he is not under control because he knows that would help in any search if something went wrong.

    Misjudgment #8. Kennedy was very new to this aircraft and he should only have been flying it in good weather in daytime conditions until his experience was well established. He learned to fly on a Cessna 182 high wing. With a low wing aircraft you tend to lose the lights below you for reference.

    Looking straight forward into a black void at night in total haze, you lose the horizon and unless you are instrument rated and even if you think you can understand an artificial horizon, the reality is that unless you have had the requisite training to learn to "trust" your instruments and not your body's responses to gravity, you will very likely lose orientation and enter a spin, exactly as apparently happened to Kennedy.

    Misjudgment #9. Ego. I'm going to do it despite the weather conditions, despite my foot, despite the new plane I'm not really familiar with.... Ego is the pilot's worst enemy...and it caught up with John Kennedy and his airplane.

    Whatever the outcome of the investigation and the efforts of the public relations machines to romanticize this in some other way as part of the ongoing tragedies of Camelot, the simple fact is Kennedy displayed poor judgment at the very least by deciding to undertake the flight that evening and two people were killed along with him. There could well be a degree of criminal negligence involved here in the death of his passengers if it can be shown FARs (federal air regulations) were broken by Kennedy.

    If any good can come from this tragedy, it is to remind you or any pilot that accidents are often a result of a string of poor decisions and poor judgment that compound into the final destructive event. There were enough poor decisions compounding along the way to this accident to seriously question the pilot training and pilot mentorship Kennedy received.

    He threw it all away. It was not a glamorous exit. It was simply stupid...and two innocent young passengers were killed as well.

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    Copyright © 1999 Christopher Goodfellow/Laruentian Web/7.99