On July 16, 1999, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr. took off from Essex County Airport in Caldwell, New Jersey, at 8:39 p.m. At 9:41 p.m., he crashed his Piper Saratoga into the Atlantic Ocean seven and one-half miles short of his goal, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, killing himself; his wife, Carolyn; and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette. Why did this happen and what can we learn from this high-profile crash that will make us all better, safer pilots?
1. Get-there-itis. Pilots talk about this common syndrome and some even joke about it. We think it will never happen to us, but it does. We could never be that headstrong, we reason, but we all have felt the urge to get there or, maybe even worse, to get home. Such was the case with Kennedy. He probably believed he had to get there at all costs, because he was flying to his cousin’s wedding and he had promised his sister, Caroline, who was vacationing in Idaho with her family, that he would represent their branch of the Kennedy family at the ceremony in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Kennedy had also promised his wife Carolyn’s sister, Lauren, that he would drop her off in Martha’s Vineyard on the way—adding one more promise he didn’t want to break, and considerably complicating his flight plan since he would have to fly over open water. Kennedy probably felt responsible for getting there and did not want to disappoint anyone by delaying the flight and missing the wedding.
2. Stress. Kennedy’s level of stress was probably high when he climbed into the cockpit. Consider what he was facing prior to his flight:
He had broken his ankle in an ultralight crash on Martha’s Vineyard about six weeks earlier. The cast had been removed the day before his flight and he still may have been in pain. He was seen hobbling on crutches doing the preflight.
It was possible that his marriage was in trouble. Allegedly he had not slept at home for several nights prior to this trip and marriage troubles had been widely reported in the media. The couple was undergoing marriage counseling.
Kennedy’s magazine, George, was having financial problems. It had been losing money for months, and his financial backers were threatening to pull the plug on additional financing. Kennedy had spent that July morning in meetings with his financial backers.
He did not get much sleep the night before. He had attended a New York Yankees night game and then met friends for food and drinks afterward. He didn’t get to his hotel until around 2 a.m.; he probably got only about five hours of sleep the day of the crash.
He was running late. His original plan was to be airborne by 6:30 p.m. so he could make the flight in daylight. But Carolyn and Lauren were running behind schedule and dusk was approaching when they arrived at the airport after 8 p.m.; darkness was closing in by the time of takeoff at 8:39 p.m.
3. New aircraft. Kennedy had recently upgraded from a Cessna 182 Skylane to a Piper Saratoga, a faster, more complex airplane. He had flown about 36 hours in his new airplane and it’s possible he did not yet feel fully comfortable and confident. Also, because the flight left late, Kennedy ended up flying in darkness, through an unusually heavy haze and over open water.
4. Solo time. Kennedy had about 350 hours of total time and only about 100 hours of that was solo. Most of that was in his Skylane. Of his 36 hours in the Saratoga, fewer than half were solo and fewer than 10 hours were at night. Plus, he had not flown solo in nearly two months, the last time being shortly after he purchased the Saratoga. He was limited because he had worn a cast during this time. In a flight shortly before the fatal accident, his instructor had to help him with the landing since his cast prevented him from handling the rudder pedals. Kennedy did not have an instrument rating.
5. Weather. Although Kennedy did check the weather earlier in the day, he failed to get the current weather just before takeoff. Nor did he check with pilots who had just landed at Essex County Airport; two pilots who had landed just minutes before Kennedy’s takeoff reported that conditions were much worse than forecast. One of those pilots, who saw Kennedy’s airplane being prepared, went to find him to warn him that conditions were bad. But Kennedy was across the street in a convenience store and the pilot never got to deliver his warning. Another pilot, who used a self-styled weather forecast system in which he would pick out a landmark near the airport and if he could not see it would not fly, canceled his trip that night. The flight school also canceled training that night.
6. No instructor. One of Kennedy’s instructors offered to accompany him, but Kennedy declined—even though he had used instructors for much simpler flights. Frequently, he would hire an instructor to fly with him, and sometimes Kennedy would disembark at a destination and the instructor would fly his airplane back to Essex County Airport. When Kennedy wanted to come home, he would have the instructor come and pick him up and he would fly the return leg. The fact that Kennedy did not take an instructor that July evening is baffling. There was room in the airplane, it was night, and it would have been a difficult flight with two takeoffs and landings. Kennedy likely would not have crashed if he had had a CFI on board.
7. No right-seater. His wife and her sister sat in the back of the airplane and the right seat remained empty. Although Carolyn was not a pilot nor had she taken a Pinch-Hitter course, she had flown with Kennedy before and, if she was in the co-pilot’s position, could have listened to the radio, jotted down information, watched gauges, and helped him in other ways.
8. No radio contact. After leaving Essex County Airport, Kennedy never made radio contact with any controller for the remainder of the trip. In addition, he filed no flight plan, made no request for flight following, and made no radio contact of any kind. It is not known if he monitored any key frequencies along the way, but he came close enough to a commercial jet landing at Westchester County Airport to trigger the collision alarm on the jet and at LaGuardia Airport.
9. No autopilot. Kennedy’s airplane had a very good autopilot and Kennedy knew how to use it. The NTSB report indicated that the autopilot was not in use at the time of the crash.
10. Did not alter plans. It is clear that Kennedy should never have taken off that night in those conditions (I flew from Cape Cod to Albany, New York, that same day). However, once he did and saw how bad the weather was, he pressed on. He could have returned to his home base; he could have landed at any number of airports along the Connecticut shore; he could have canceled going to Martha’s Vineyard and gone straight to Hyannis Port, his final destination. His sister-in-law Lauren did not have a pressing need to be dropped off on Martha’s Vineyard that night.
Kennedy’s decision to continue the flight despite all the problems resulted in the fatal crash that claimed three lives.
Douglas A. Lonnstrom, PhD., a Siena College statistics professor and an instrument-rated private pilot with more than 20 years of flying experience, researched John F. Kennedy Jr.’s accident for more than 10 years. The result is his book JFK Jr.—10 Years After the Crash—A Pilot’s Perspective . For more information, see the website .
Illustration by Sarah Jones