Remembering the JFK Jr. Crash
This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of JFK, Jr.'s crash off Martha's Vineyard --not only another embarrassing and public celebrity tragedy in aviation, but a milestone in industry public relations.
Saturday morning, July 17, 1999: I clicked on The Weather Channel to hear of "excellent conditions for the JFK, Jr. search." What? Over to CNN, then CBS for the story. Five minutes later, the CBS Washington Bureau called. Dan Rather was struggling with breaking news coverage, as he usually did by then. CBS moaned, "Pilots are calling in from all over."
"I know," I said. "He's messing up." In one hour and fifteen minutes I was showered, suited and in the chair 35 miles away at 2020 M Street, ready for a cue from New York. Phil Boyer was in Alaska. I had been flying to the Vineyard for more than 30 years, many times from New York. The Vineyard was "my place." I knew it well. And I had hundreds of hours in the Piper Saratoga.
Our early hours on-air straightened out the basics and fixed egregious errors. With other media to help, I considered breaking away but CBS seemed to need the most help. They were kind enough to provide a phone on-set; I could work other media when off-camera. What was on-camera was troublesome enough, however. CBS brought in author Richard Reeve, an authority on the Kennedy family. Unfortunately, he had once taken flying lessons!
Just like the "instant expert" at your airport, Reeve spouted defective "expertise" and negative opinion on flying, not Kennedys. And since he was in-studio with Rather in New York, he began to dominate talk time. I resorted to a pundit's most desperate technique: wildly waving at the camera until New York noticed.
The real drama, however, had come at 1:15PM. By then, with no news from searchers, Rather had to ask the questions we had avoided. With appropriate and stumbling qualifiers, I had to answer, "No. It doesn't look good."
The tougher one came next: What happened? Along with the standard "NTSB disclaimer," I had to give the public something factual and understandable to focus on. National speculation was running wild with mysterious black forces and Devil's Triangles. There was no one to call. I took it on, myself.
"Spatial Disorientation." In minutes it was all over the country. And soon it was the "take-away" of the story. It was the likely scenario for a dark night when taking the long over-water leg for the "short-cut" from Point Judith, R.I., direct to the Vineyard.
"Night-time Over-water VFR." It was explainable. And from a PR point of view, it was a limited hazard in the U.S. (mostly in the Cape and Islands, crossing the Great Lakes and so on.) The public could see it as rare and avoidable. The concept, and the conclusion, went nationwide.
That phone on the set resulted in some circuitous reporting, however. I had just finished an interview with the Associated Press during a CBS break. Minutes later, Dan Rather came back for a comment on "new news!" "The 'wires'" he gushed, "had just reported blah-blah-blah. Drew, do you agree with that?" Of course I did. I had just said it to the AP.
After 6.5 hours in-studio, CBS broke to ready the evening news. Bob Schieffer, who had been seated across from me since 2:30PM, escorted me through the news room. Reporters and producers broke from their normal "media vs. PR" stance to shake my hand. This, and praise from my long-time hero Schieffer, was the tribute of a career. His quote that day now adorns my resume.
But it didn't stop. Sunday, it was NBC and ABC. The remote from ABC Washington didn't go well, so New York had me fly up for a Monday interview. On the plane back, I was going through call slips, phoning in interview after interview on AirPhone… to the consternation of other passengers. I threw my suit coat over my head to muffle the talk-fest. It went on and on. I stopped it all after two weeks. FOX would have kept going forever!
In all, AOPA did 150 print and broadcast interviews in the first four days alone. That Monday night, we were on all three national networks (including the CBS Evening News and later, ABC 20/20 and Dateline NBC simultaneously.) Old friends called in from all over. Bank tellers recognized me when I cashed a check. This was the power of the media in an overwhelming, shared national experience.
Why tell this tale? Traditionally, aviation has stonewalled crashes. And the media mangles the coverage. My philosophy, and the AOPA operation I built, believed that open, honest and skillful communication ultimately benefits us all. And 10 years ago, we won the question. Today, it's more common. That's good.
There's much more to the story. If I ever do my second book, a chapter will name more names and call out a few who – I think – put both JFK, Jr. and all of us in this situation. There's a technical theory I'll share -- and scary examples of media bias against General Aviation. That weekend, after all, "we" had killed an American icon.
After 10 years, the JFK Jr. accident AOPA media team has long since been replaced. Warren Morningstar remains at AOPA, but in another capacity. Kevin Murphy is gone but Bruce Landsberg (enlisted as a fourth spokesman) remains at the Air Safety Foundation. Phil Boyer got back from Alaska in time to do the last major network appearance, a Wednesday in-cockpit live remote for Brian Williams' old MSNBC evening news. As a team, we won the prestigious Laurel Award from Aviation Week and Space Technology.
The world has changed since. 9/11. The recession. Phil Boyer's retirement from AOPA. For now, though, let's reflect on national tragedy turned into public understanding. It's done through forthright, skillful, activist communication with the non-flying public.
And we can use much more of it.