Even under the best circumstances, the chances of anyone living through a nighttime emergency landing at sea in a light plane are "pretty slim," a veteran airline pilot and air safety expert said Saturday.
"It would be strictly a matter of luck to survive something like that," said Al Pregler, a retired United Airlines pilot and safety coordinator for the Air Line Pilots Assn. "It's a very iffy thing."
And the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the single-engine Piper Saratoga piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. on Friday night were far from ideal.
Kennedy was a relative novice in the air, having received his license only about a year ago. His total hours as a pilot numbered less than 500, probably far less. Nonetheless, he chose to make the 200-mile flight from Fairfield, N.J., to Martha's Vineyard, an island off the Massachusetts coast, at night, much of it over the open sea.
"I don't fly farther over the water in a single engine plane than I can swim back to shore," said Pregler, who got his license more than 30 years ago and has logged more than 38,000 hours as a pilot.
"Many pilots won't even consider a water crossing at night in anything but a multi-engine airplane," veteran pilot Thomas A. Horne wrote recently in AOPA Pilot, the magazine of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn.
Kennedy was not "instrument rated," which means he was licensed to fly by using visual references and was not authorized to rely solely on displays available on the plane's sophisticated instrument system.
The visibility was limited during the flight, both by the darkness of night and by haze. Ground references were similarly limited, because so much of the flight was over the water. Furthermore, Kennedy did not ask air traffic controllers for "flight following," under which they would have monitored his progress and warned him of other air traffic in the area.
Airport radar data show that, despite these handicaps, Kennedy appears to have found his way, reaching a point over the Atlantic Ocean that was only about 19 miles from his intended destination--the airport on Martha's Vineyard--at an altitude of about 6,000 feet.
The Piper Saratoga began a stepped descent, normal for an approach to the airport. Then the plane suddenly began a steeper descent, disappearing from the radar screen altogether.
What happened is not known.
The plane could have run out of fuel or sustained an engine failure or some other mechanical malfunction. It could have dived out of control due to some piloting error by Kennedy.
Even if Kennedy had the aircraft under control, ditching it successfully would have been very difficult.
"You have no reference points over water, so gauging your height is very difficult," Pregler said. "At night, with reduced visibility, it's even more difficult."
Pregler said experienced pilots, aware of this problem, try to inch a plane down the last 100 feet to the water in an effort to minimize the force of impact.
Water, which does not compress, makes a surprisingly hard landing surface, often causing a plane to break up on impact. "It's like hitting a concrete wall," Pregler said.
The impact can be heightened by waves, especially if they are moving in a direction other than the plane.
If the landing gear is down--and the Piper's may have been, since Kennedy was preparing to set down at the airport three miles south of Vineyard Haven--the wheels and wheel struts can dig into the water, flipping the plane, nose first, onto its back.
"Surviving this scenario is much less likely," Horne wrote.
"First, you have to get the doors open," he said. "This may mean allowing some water into the cabin so that water pressure won't hold the doors shut. . . . If the doors are jammed, you'll have to bash out the windows before the airplane sinks.
"This is tough enough when the aircraft is level. If it's upside-down, disorientation can make it almost impossible."
That's why many pilots eschew shorter, over-the water routes in favor of longer routes over land. Open fields, golf courses, mall parking lots and deserted streets make much more inviting emergency landing strips than a stretch of open sea.
A Piper Saratoga can screech to a successful halt on a runway in as little as 640 feet.
The $300,000 plane has a cruising speed of about 188 mph and a range of about 850 miles. There are about 7,500 Saratogas currently in use around the world.
"Among the ranks of high-performance aircraft, it's one of the easiest to fly," said Warren Morningstar, an AOPA spokesman. "It's a very safe, very solid, very good airplane."
Kennedy purchased the used red-and-white plane, a 1995 model, in April.
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Narrowing the Search
A plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. carrying his wife and her sister disappeared Friday night en route to Martha's Vineyard. They took off from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J. The U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue operation is concentrating on an area about 17 miles west of Martha's Vineyard.