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.