Reflecting on JFK Jr. plane crash

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To the Editor:

I’ve flown in and out of Martha’s Vineyard Airport (MVY) many thousands of times since 1980. On July 16, 1999, I flew from MVY to Teterboro, N.J., and back, then MVY to Westchester County Airport and back, about two hours prior to the time of Mr. Kennedy’s crash. On each flight leg I flew under visual flight rules. In-flight visibility in the haze was approximately 3 to 5 miles, with little, if any, visible horizon.

It’s typical for haze to be limited from the earth’s surface up to a higher altitude. That day “top of the haze” was approximately 5,000 to 6,000 feet. Above that, in-flight visibility was unlimited with the horizon clearly defined.

Mr. Kennedy’s presumed flight path was nearly identical to what I had flown four times earlier that day. It was reported that Mr. Kennedy’s en route flight was at an altitude above the haze until he needed to descend for MVY. Had he flown over the coastline, he surely would have seen lights from the ground, and been provided a visual reference. Instead his descent over the open water between Block Island and MVY precluded any outside reference, save perhaps lights from a few fishing vessels.

As an experiment, two days later at dusk and in similar weather conditions, I flew the same eastbound flight path using visual references only. It was achievable, but only due to my level of skill, experience, and a few lights on the ground.

We can’t know every circumstance of this tragic event. However, had Mr. Kennedy promptly recognized his predicament and engaged his autopilot (assuming it was functional), the outcome might have been more favorable. Unfortunately, at that time, standard general aviation flight training did not include much more than cursory instruction on the technicalities of autopilots or, more important, when to utilize that equipment.

Perhaps, as a result of Mr. Kennedy’s accident, many of today’s general aviation autopilots include some form of “panic button,” which with a single press engages the autopilot to promptly bring an aircraft to straight and level flight. The Avidyne DFC90, with a “Straight & Level” button, is an example. Last year Garmin on its blog noted, “Aircraft loss-of-control scenarios in-flight are one of the foremost safety concerns in aviation today. It’s become such a safety concern that it’s landed a spot on the National Transportation Safety Board’s Most Wanted List. At Garmin, we’re doing our part to help put an end to these dangerous events. And one of our tools is our ‘blue button.’

“Officially referred to as the return-to-level (LVL) mode button, this dedicated button has been incorporated in select Garmin integrated flight decks featuring GFC 700, plus our new, cost-effective GFC 500 and GFC 600 retrofit autopilots — along with several Garmin autopilot solutions for experimental and light sport aircraft.”

 

Ted Stanley
West Tisbury