John F. Kennedy Jr. turned down an offer by one of his flying instructors to accompany him the night of his doomed flight to Martha's Vineyard, saying that he "wanted to do it alone," federal investigators reported Thursday.
The accident that killed Kennedy, his wife and his sister-in-law nearly a year ago--and left the nation mourning after its most prominent political family had suffered another tragedy--was caused by an inexperienced pilot who became disoriented in the dark and lost control, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded in its final report.
The report confirmed earlier theories by other aviation experts that Kennedy was stretching his capabilities as he attempted the 200-mile flight--its final phase over a dark, hazy sea. Investigators found no mechanical problems with his single-engine Piper Saratoga or its navigational systems.
Kennedy, 38, was the son of assassinated President John F. Kennedy and the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. He was a prosecutor in New York before he founded a glossy political magazine and married Carolyn Bessette, a New York socialite and former fashion industry publicist. The couple, along with her sister Lauren Bessette, were headed from their Manhattan home to a cousin's wedding.
Kennedy kept his plane at an airport in suburban New Jersey and previously had flown solo at night to Martha's Vineyard. But the report noted that he had limited experience with night flight. And Kennedy, who had logged 310 hours as a pilot, was not yet proficient in flying by instruments. The report said that the instructor who offered to go with him was not "comfortable" with Kennedy alone at the controls that evening, July 16.
The report also suggests that Kennedy did not use all the tools at his disposal to enhance safety. Investigators did not comment on whether that was because of inexperience or was a conscious decision.
For example, the plane's sophisticated autopilot system could have been used that night. According to independent experts, the autopilot could have flown Kennedy to within a few hundred feet of the runway. However, investigators found that the device--though in working order--was turned off.
The report quoted one of Kennedy's flight instructors as saying that he "seemed competent" in his use of the autopilot.
Among the features of the aircraft's autopilot system was a "flight director" that allows a pilot to fly the aircraft while receiving continuous prompts on what actions to take.
"If you're hand-flying, the flight director can give you all the cues you need," said Warren Morningstar, a private pilot and spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. "What I have been taught is to use every tool available to me in the airplane.
"You come away from this with the observation that the information was there for the pilot and the pilot had tools available to him--and for whatever reason, the pilot didn't utilize all the tools and information available."
"It's an excellent autopilot," said Al Pregler, a retired airline captain from Fullerton, Calif. "It probably could have gotten him down to the last 100 feet."
Kennedy also could have used his radio to ask Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers for guidance but did not do so.
According to the report, Kennedy had taken off about 8:40 p.m. After about an hour of routine flight, he began his descent toward the island of Martha's Vineyard, a popular summer resort. Meteorological instruments at the airport recorded adequate visibility, but pilots in the area reported problems seeing the horizon because of haze.
Kennedy's descent was anything but routine. Radar information showed that the plane leveled off, then climbed, then went into a dive and soon turned tightly to the right, spiraling toward the water at high speed.
NTSB investigators concluded that the probable cause of the accident was "the pilot's failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation."
Illusions that cause pilots to become disoriented at night or in poor visibility are a well-documented phenomenon. "This has been going on since aviation started," said Pregler, the retired airline captain.
"If you are not able to fly by instruments, you are dependent on your body," he explained. "Your sense of balance is determined by your inner ear--and your inner ear can lie to you. You can lose awareness. You don't know if you are turning or climbing or diving. What you may perceive is happening can be entirely different from what is really happening."
Under those conditions, a pilot's actions can make things worse, precipitating a type of dive known as a "graveyard spiral."
Experts say it is unlikely that the Kennedy plane crash will lead to any changes in government safety requirements for private pilots. According to Morningstar, night training has been improved in recent years, and accidents as a result of disorientation have been steadily declining.
But the Kennedy crash has made a deep impression as a cautionary tale. "This has been a point of discussion among pilots," Morningstar said. "Everyone is more cognizant that these are the types of illusions that can hit you when you are flying at night."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the family patriarch, declined to comment on the latest findings.