JFK Jr. as Pilot

It will soon be eleven years since the crash off Martha's Vineyard that killed John F. Kennedy Jr, his wife, and his sister-in-law. In the aviation world, this episode has been seen as a tragedy but not a mystery. It fit the classic pattern of a "spatial disorientation" crash -- a pilot without "instrument training" who gets into a cloud, can no longer see the horizon, loses his sense of up-versus-down, and gets into an unrecoverable spiral toward the surface. The classic account of why and how this happens (obviously predating JFK Jr) is by William Langewiesche, in the Atlantic in 1993, here.

My second-favorite magazine, AOPA Pilot, has just published a "10 things that went wrong"-type assessment of the Kennedy crash, here. No single element of it is news, but it's useful as an overview of the "accident chain," which in theory could have been broken at any point, that lies behind most aviation disasters. The last two links on the chain are these:

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. [JF note: In principle, with one push of a button this could have leveled the plane's wings, arrested the descent, and given the pilot time to figure out what was going on.]

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.

A sad event; this new info just For The Record.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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