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KENNEDY PLANE CRASH

Piloting Error by JFK Jr. Suspected in Fatal Crash

Tragedy: Safety experts say plane lost altitude in apparent 'graveyard spiral.' Families of victims speak out for first time and offer thanks for search efforts.

July 20, 1999|ERIC MALNIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANDWICH TOWNSHIP, Mass. — The flight of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law was normal until about 17 miles from the airport off Martha's Vineyard, when the plane suddenly lost altitude in an apparent "graveyard spiral," an indication that pilot error was the most likely cause of the crash, air safety experts said Monday.

The plane lost 1,100 feet in only 14 seconds--a descent rate of 4,700 feet per minute--before it disappeared from radar coverage, National Transportation Safety Board officials said.

Experts said the high-performance Piper Saratoga that Kennedy was piloting generally cannot handle a descent much more than 1,500 feet per minute. The plane's gauge shows a maximum of 2,000 feet per minute. While in-flight breakup remains a possible reason for the crash, flight experts said the most probable explanation is some piloting error by Kennedy.

This type of accident often indicates the pilot lost control of a plane because of disorientation or vertigo, said Barry Schiff, a retired TWA pilot who is now an air safety consultant.

Because Kennedy was flying on a hazy night over water, with few visual reference points, he could have become disoriented. Kennedy was not trained to use flight instruments, so he could have dropped into a nose dive without realizing it.

"Structural failure is very unlikely, given the smooth weather and the newness of the plane," Schiff said. "The most likely explanation would be his losing control of the aircraft because of his lack of experience and qualification in a situation where there is no visible horizon. . . . He would become disoriented. The plane would begin to turn without his recognizing it or being able to take corrective action. This would lead to a graveyard spiral."

However, NTSB officials at a news conference Monday were reluctant to characterize the drop in altitude as unusual.

Kennedy attended a flight school in Florida and received his medical clearance--which allowed him to fly solo--in December 1997. He received his pilot's license four months later.

More debris from the plane washed onshore Monday at Martha's Vineyard and on some smaller islands nearby.

"There were numerous small pieces of the airplane found," said Robert Pearce, an NTSB investigator. "It was primarily pieces of the interior cabin, including molding, carpeting and cushions."

The Rude, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel with side-scan sonar, has zeroed in on 10 possible targets for the crash site. Ten divers from the Massachusetts State Police operating off two boats will try to determine whether the objects spotted by sonar in 80 feet of water are, in fact, the main wreckage of the single-engine plane piloted by Kennedy.

Meanwhile, land crews operating on foot and atop all-terrain vehicles on Monday shifted their focus several miles down the beaches from the area around Gay Head lighthouse, where debris from the plane washed ashore. The debris was transported to a hangar at nearby Otis Air National Guard Base, where it will be examined.

Unlike commercial airliners, small, single-engine planes like Kennedy's Piper Saratoga are not equipped with "black boxes," which record cockpit sounds, or flight data recorders, which provide information on the plane's altitude, heading and readings of various instruments. But, Pearce said, preliminary information indicates the plane's previous owner installed a manual cockpit recorder. If the recorder is found, it could give investigators insight into the cause of the crash and possibly the last radio transmissions from the cockpit.

Investigators are studying weather data and interviewing witnesses in New Jersey--where the plane took off--and on Martha's Vineyard. They also are talking to flight instructors and anyone else who may have flown with Kennedy in an effort to learn more about his piloting skills.

Investigators have studied the plane's maintenance records, which were up to date. The plane was last inspected June 28.

Kennedy had planned to fly to Massachusetts early Friday evening, his friends told authorities. The departure was delayed, however, because of rush-hour traffic in New York and his sister-in-law's work commitments.

The plane took off from the Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., at 8:38 p.m., federal officials said. The flight path took the plane through hazy skies along the southern coast of Connecticut at 5,600 feet.

At 9:26 p.m., Kennedy was off Westerly, R.I., and began to head over the water directly to Martha's Vineyard. There was a gap in the first radar tapes reviewed by investigators, but Kennedy's plane was again detected at about 9:38 p.m. about 17 to 18 miles west of the airport, flying at about 2,200 feet.

During the next 14 seconds, the plane plunged to 1,100 feet, where it left the radar scope.

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