Remembering the JFK Jr. Crash

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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.

Comments (29)

Thanks to you and Drew Steketee for an excellent report.

Posted by: RAY KALIL | July 17, 2009 10:13 AM    Report this comment

It is nice to see that Drew was able to fight his way into confusing CBS with facts. However, 10 years later CBS is reporting how GA is getting most of the stimulus, starving the "Big" airports from badly needed "public" funds. After all if it isn't an airliner, is isn't needed. I believe a possible answer is finding a way to get some prime time...maybe a reality show on aviation. An example would be "tonight on the big network, the reality show, The Biggest Pilot." "Whom will be the first to solo?" "Will it be Billy Bob from Alabama or Suzy Creamcheese from upstate New York." "Lets not forget about Roscoe from Arizona and Moonbeam from LA... Who will be first to get their ticket to fly?

Posted by: Chuck West | July 17, 2009 11:34 AM    Report this comment

Can't wait for Mr. Steketee's new book re the JFK, Jr. tragedy, which happened just before OSH/AirVenture. Several of the pros at OSH 2000 speculated that Mr. Kennedy's Century autopilot must have been inoperative. We all know VFR night ocean flying with less than a full moon is very risky business for even high time aviators. I wish Mr. Kennedy had kept his C-182.

Posted by: Dan Coffman | July 17, 2009 1:51 PM    Report this comment

A few months after the accident, I received a late call for a rescue op, same deal, except the pilot was newly minted flying a new C-172 while using flight following along the coast on moonless night. Sad part is a look to the left would have supplied some lighting along the beach. But a look to the right with turn in this case, left nothing. ATC could do nothing once the disorientation began. The situation concerns me enough that even with NVGs, I try not to lose the reference of the beach. Just underestimated till you see it and I try to incorporate with students with a demonstration...

Posted by: Chuck West | July 17, 2009 2:06 PM    Report this comment

Drew -- Well done and well told.

Posted by: Clif Stroud | July 17, 2009 3:10 PM    Report this comment

It wassaid that JFK jr was taking instrument instruction from Flight Safety Inc,had not yet completed. That evening the haze was godawful, MANY folks at CDW (NJ ) his home base asked him to go Saturday instead.It was his Sis in law whom really pushed for that evening + she was late. I have NO IDEA of the navaids for the area, but I do believe that 2 seperate Comtinental ATR43;s had turned back, as the haze was that bad. Should, have could have, we can only accept spatial disorentation. RIP

Posted by: Leighton Samms | July 17, 2009 5:44 PM    Report this comment

Being a Hanscom based Navaho owner pilot (12K hours, I am an old guy with lots of trips to ACK.) in limited visibility lights on two ships can presnt a horizan that a low time pilot can mistake as the true horizon and try to fly to that horizon with a very bad result.

Posted by: Carl Gritzmaker | July 17, 2009 6:07 PM    Report this comment

Sorry about the mis-spellings on the above.

Posted by: Carl Gritzmaker | July 17, 2009 6:17 PM    Report this comment

Years ago when I was instructing, I would try to give students (whether licensed or not, but without instrument ratings) some experience flying into IMC (on an instrument flight plan, of course)--and without exception, each lost control relatively rapidly, as all of the experiments show that they will. Sometimes I could talk them under control and sometimes I had to take control--but the problem was that none of them recognized that he was out of control!

Instrument rated pilots tend to keep an eye on the instruments in MVMC, but non-rated pilots tend to look outside well beyond when they should transition to the gauges, and they go by their seat-of-the-pants feelings. All this is in spite of the minimal required instrument training that all students receive toward their private certificates, which is supposed to teach how to recognize unusual attitudes and how to recover from them. Fact: it's not enough, and JFK Jr.'s event is a good example.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | July 17, 2009 9:32 PM    Report this comment

I'll go again: This mid-July weekend may become a landmark intersection of TV news, aviation and aerospace: Apollo 11, JFK, Jr. and now the long-anticipated loss of Walter Cronkite, American hero as a "UniPresser" in WWII, anchor of the half-hour network TV news, arbitrer of the Viet Nam War, chronicler of Watergate and much more....
How many times I bicycled or drove the Jeep past his home on Martha's Vineyard heading for Katama Airfield, thinking of his legacy and bitter retirement, made happier for his time to sail.
For Baby Boomers, he symbolized the national power of three TV networks --two really. ABC didn't count until the 1970s (this makes the Phil Boyer story even more interesting.) Man, gotta write that book!
It took General Aviation decades -- way too long -- to face up to and equal the daunting power of national TV news on public opinion.
Thanks to all the commenters; special thanks to aviation PR man Clif Stroud for his kind words.

Drew Steketee
Ashburn VA
July 17, 2009

Posted by: Drew Steketee | July 17, 2009 9:47 PM    Report this comment


Write the book! Great article here. Thank you.
The night of JFK Jr.'s tragedy, I was on duty as a Flight Service Specialist at Bridgeport AFSS. As commenter above, Leighton Samms mentions, we were receiving pilot reports that reflected the conditions out there, which we relayed in our pilot briefings. No weather product was depicting or predicting the restrictions to flight visibility. I know for a FACT that we helped to save lives that evening. Alas, it wasn't meant to be for John.
Had he called on the ground or in the air ONE TIME, before or during this fateful flight, I can assure you, we would have passed along this valuable information to aid in his "Go/No Go" decision.

Posted by: Any Mouse | July 18, 2009 8:41 AM    Report this comment

As the publisher of Wonderful World of Flying and a frequent visitor to MVY, I did many tv interviews after the crash. One TV crew wanted me to take them flying to show them what spatial disorientation was. It was a very hazy day, and chose to show them in a simulator. The producer call his boss and said " this isn't very exciting".
My late friend Bob Merena was Kennedy's instructor and normally flew with Kennedy to MYV, take the plane back to CDW and then pick him up. This time when Bob asked him if he was needed, Kennedy said "No", I want to show the plane to my family". Bob and I discussed this quite often. We both believed that the Autopilot was working fine as indicated on the radar track. It all went bad when he disengaged it.
In our opinion, just inexperience after a long day at the office.
Nice Job Drew. Nice to see you in print again.

Posted by: Steve Kahn | July 20, 2009 5:52 AM    Report this comment

JFK's instructor usually flew with him on these trips, and I still give part of the blame to that instructor. Had he sat there like a lump and never kept prodding JFK "watch your attitude here," or "you're in a slight right bank," or "pick the nose up," and just let him go to the point where he was actually losing control (or to the point where the CFI had confidence he could recover) this may not have happened. JFK, when flying with his instuctor was acting as an autopilot and his instructor was really doing the flying and decision making. Had he let him lose it a few times, JFK may still be with us. After all, JFK probably thought, "I've never lost control on any of the other trips." He never realized he wasn't really PIC on those trips.

If we want to teach our students to make good decisions, we've got to let them make every decision on every flight from number one on. The instructor should only intervene if the decision is going to put the flight in peril. If we keep baby sitting our pilots during training and clueing them to every move they need to make and, virtually saving their butts, then these type accidents. Most low time pilots don't realize that 5 or 6 miles visibility over water on a moonless or evercast night is NOT VFR.

Posted by: Linda Pendleton | July 20, 2009 7:56 AM    Report this comment

I completely agree with Steve.

It there's one lesson that all pilots should take from the JFK Jr. tragedy its: don't be afraid to say "Plan A isn't working we need to switch to Plan B". Sometimes diverting to another destination is inconvenient or embarrassing (which I can appreciate when you're flying your first-time-in-the-plane sister-in-law). Being based at CDW I've made that trip numerous times and the lack of visual reference on a seemingly VFR night needs to be safely experienced to be fully appreciated. When I first got my ticket in 1977 I remember taking off from AIY (Bader) on a moonless night. This was my fifth night flight but the first taking off towards the ocean. Remember that in 77 this preceded all those Atlantic City hotels and their lights. When I lifted the nose on takeoff I couldn't believe how absolutely dark it was. Nothing visual! I said to myself "climb straight ahead to 1000' and then take a peek to the left". As soon as I saw the coastal lights I immediately felt better (and of course knew what to expect on subsequent flights).

Like Steve, I wish he didn't disengage the autopilot. I do know in looking at the accident chain of events that there were several decision points that had he decided differently might have led to a different conclusion. There are some who believe he shouldn't have taken off from CDW that night. My view is that he didn't crash in NJ. He had well over one hour of flying to change from Plan A to Plan B.

Posted by: Ben Rosenberg | July 20, 2009 8:45 AM    Report this comment

In July 1999 I was a low time (250 hour) pilot of a Turbo Piper Lance (PA-32) the predecessor to JFK Jr's Saratoga with the same auto-pilot. I was in the "middle" of my instrument rating training. As I've told many, except for the money, fame, looks youthfulness and street-recognition, John and I were in the same place. I, too, probably would have made the flight, but would have been cut short by an in-flight weather check. Thanks to Linda's post, above. My instruction included flying in haze, becoming disoriented, and my instructor allowing me to get way over my head before pointing out and recovering from what spatial disorientation can do. Those instruments don't lie; your body does.

Posted by: Terence Wheaton | July 20, 2009 9:46 AM    Report this comment

Regarding Linda's comments, Bob Merena was a fine instructor... One of the best I ever had. Never knew him to sit back and keep quiet unless I scared him.
The responsibility for this tragic event lies soley with the pilot in command.

Posted by: Steve Kahn | July 20, 2009 3:10 PM    Report this comment

Too often a pilot's perspective is clouded by his recitation of his number of hours: "Wow, I have 100 hours!" "Look at me, I have 200 hours!" "I'm a super pilot--I have 300 hours!" Or 500, or 1000, or 2000. But the issue is not the number, but the quality for the purposes of the next flight.

Spacial disorientation can occur to anyone, even experienced (read: many hundreds of hours in actual IMC) IR pilots. Those experienced IR pilots can overcome it, because they know that it can happen, they trust their instruments, and they fly using their instruments.

Inexperienced and non-IR pilots, even those with many hours toward their IR, are still neophytes, basically VFR-only pilots. Only the PIC can decide whether to start or continue a flight, but any pilot needs to recognize that he or she is not immune from making mistakes. If the next flight requires qualifications greater than the pilot has, he/she must not go, it's as simple as that.

Posted by: Cary Alburn | July 20, 2009 6:41 PM    Report this comment

We would not still be revisiting this tragedy if it was any other name than Kennedy. The simple fact is, whatever his name was, he made a bad decision as a pilot and people died. Let's learn from that and move on.

Posted by: Jud Phillips | July 20, 2009 8:18 PM    Report this comment

Thanks Drew, for helping media understand a bit. I still don't think they understand fully. Most of us that have undertaken instrument training appreciate that he was legal VFR, and maybe that is an issue. I am a U.S. native, but I know Canada required instrument training for night flight. I actually think that is not unreasonable particularly without good vis. reference, like over water as opposed to a well-lit city. I have not heard the "death spiral" mentioned here specifically. That is where even under instruments you fail the mantra "fixation, ommision, emphasis" F.O.E.! Well-trained instrument pilots occasionally succumb. If you fixate on decending altitude and don't fix bank angle tighten the spiral. The more you try to solve the problem of descent (fixating on altimeter) by increasing yoke back pressure, the faster the descent (tightening the spiral)..until you hit water hard, and pop the tires off the rims. I must say I did get good training on the spatial disorientation matter..and of course; trust the instruments we all say! Unusual attitude 101: descending (increasing airspeed), decrease power/wings to level/ recover (after stabilized bring back power, remain wings level, achieve required altitude, navigate). The simple key is to get wings level before you effect an attempted improvement in climb (or serious lack thereof). Repeating..Power off/wings level/recover. Saves lives. Many have done this under hood..sorry. Nice narrative on the PR part Drew!

Posted by: eric hanson | July 21, 2009 6:53 AM    Report this comment

Oh, I wanted to say Linda had some good thoughts about training (though I didn't experience the coddling at Riddle). Her salient point is that he really was not ready as a pilot (I hope I'm not putting words in your mouth Linda). When I trained, that was all I thought abought. When John trained (and we know he loved flying), he still didn't have it as numero uno for him. This happens to successful, driven, people who love aviation, but don't put as much into it as perhaps is required. His flight conditions were quite challenging for a less experienced pilot, it is saddening for many of us who appreciate how easy it is to forget the best of training when we haven't practiced it, or maybe internalized to the point of reacting with proper automatic instincts. Really, after all these seems like yesterday; and it is a true loss! I have to caveat that none of us were in the cockpit, and I only conjecture somewhat (like many of us seasoned fliers). Jud mentions that if it hadn't been JFK Jr. we wouldn't talk so much about it. I agree, but let us take advantage of it to underscore IFR or VFR principles. Proper decision making isn't as easy as one might think (Junior was a pretty smart fellow, and apparently thought about calling his I.P. to help the flight). If you have Junior's second thought, act on my take away.

Posted by: eric hanson | July 21, 2009 7:25 AM    Report this comment

A few years ago (April, 2007) the FAA had a seminar in the Boston area on the JFK Jr crash, with briefings by the accident investigators, photos of the reconstructed wreckage and 3-D computer simulation of the radar hits in the final few minutes of flight. No real surprises - the damage to the airframe was massive - they had seldom seen anything like it. As I recall, it was estimated to have hit the water at 2,600 fps+. One tidbit: The investigators initially couldn't figure out two dents in one of the bent blades from the prop - until they matched it to the engine valve rocker cover bolts. The blade had been completely bent back by the impact.

For those of you interested in the other side of the media coverage (e.g. a professional analysis of how the government organizations handled it) I wrote an article that was published later that year. You can view it at
To this day, it still ranks as the second or third most monthly hits on my website. The public's fascination with the Kennedys never ceases.

Posted by: Jeffrey Geibel | July 21, 2009 11:11 AM    Report this comment

Small correction in the above - fpm (minute), not fps (second).

Posted by: Jeffrey Geibel | July 21, 2009 2:16 PM    Report this comment

I've read several comments concerning JFK Jr and his instructor but with all due respect I think we're confusing decision making and judgment with execution. "watch your attitude" or "slight right bank" are examples of bad execution. The plane can be dead solid perfect and the pilot could still be making a bad decision. Part of the JFK Jr tragedy is that for most of us our bad judgment doesn't have fatal consequences. For most of us our inexperience (on the way to getting experienced) doesn't get us killed. Instead we look back and thank god we're still in one piece and promise to never make that mistake again. For me, that's the real tragedy - he never had that chance. He made a bad decision and coupled with bad execution resulted in the worst of all worlds. There are also numerous examples from the world of sports where great execution bails out a bad strategy/decision.

Posted by: Ben Rosenberg | July 21, 2009 3:15 PM    Report this comment

He went into a death spiral. He fixated on altitude, pulled back on the yoke, tightened the spiral, and hit the water like crazy. Period. He was not a good pilot (not even average). He was a bad pilot (not a very good lawyer either). He had money, good looks, famous family. Was he a teriffic person (?), I think he seemed nice enough. Lesson, flying is risky. It will seperate the good and bad naturally (and the lucky). The airplane doesn't care how smart or important you are. This could be any of us too, I'm certainly not immune. Personal minimums and not FAA minimums should rule your decision making. That is a huge point. A friend in the business told me every single flight instructor he ever dead (I should add they all died in airplanes). This ain't a funny pass-time folks. Enjoy flying, as I will. If you fly small planes enough, it will kill you too. It is fun though, I'd just as soon continue to roll the dice. The best we can do is help the odds!

Posted by: eric hanson | July 22, 2009 12:08 AM    Report this comment

Hi, How often have we let our ego over rule the best logic we know to be true. Young JFK Jr. could have put it down in Barnstable which is lit up like close encounters of the third kind. He would have to explain a few things, but they would have lived.
A genuine tragedy.

Posted by: dan bessett | July 23, 2009 4:35 PM    Report this comment

I probably should have qualified my preceding statement to say he was not a competent "instrument pilot", which of course, he hadn't even attained a rating for yet. The FAA regs are specifically designed to allow the pilot freedom to exercise their talent (if they have it). VFR at night is risky; just because the regs allow something definitely does not mean you should do it. Some people interpret "legality" with safety. This is why the term "personal minimums" is often brought up!

Posted by: eric hanson | July 24, 2009 3:23 PM    Report this comment

With regards to the anecdotal comment above about someone's "friend in the business" indicating that all of their flight instructors had died in the saddle (instructing) - I am very skeptical about that (not necessarily that it was said, but the validity of it.)
I've been flying 30+ years, and my original instructor (as far as I know) is still alive and in his 80's, my helicopter instructor (a WWII vet) is still alive and in his 90's, and all the rest I had are around as well. Only one has expired, and that was due to health reasons unrelated to flying and long after he stopped instructing.
I think we need to be careful about repeating aviation "tall tales" for dramatic emphasis. There is enough misinformation out there.
Back to the Kennedy accident - as I remark in my article (see link above), I was flying in the pattern at KBED (Bedford - suburban Boston) that same Friday (July 16) that Kennedy took off. The haze was so bad (during the day) that I didn't leave the pattern. I'm a CFI, but I was only doing pattern proficiency. In my opinion, it did not meet my personal minimums for VFR outside the pattern.
As was remarked at the time by pilots who are familiar with summer flying up here - for a non-instrument pilot to fly over water in those conditions, at night, he simply couldn't see anything. Dr. Bob Arnot (the network doctor) was flying his twin up to KACK from New York about the same time, and remarked that he looked down when over KMVY and it was a black hole.

Posted by: Jeffrey Geibel | July 24, 2009 3:55 PM    Report this comment

Well, I haven't verified all the deaths for the circle of people. When I was told all THIS person's instructors had died, I took it seriously (he is not prone to exageration). Perhaps, and probably, it is a blip in statistics (didn't mean to be dramatic beyond any truth). Point being, flying is dangerous. Don't listen to anyone that tells you otherwise, but you can defy the odds. Just like you can do on the highway (35 thousand deaths a year). I thought maybe I'd start an intelligent conversation about personal minimums. Instead it is a comment about the weather there at the time, and Dr. Bob Arnot. Can we talk about personal decision making? That might save lives more than local conjecture about a forgotten (and tragic) accident. Interesting detail Jeff (respectfully), it is just way behind helping people today to give the Wx report from years ago? How can we avoid a needless accident like this in the future?

Posted by: eric hanson | July 25, 2009 12:14 AM    Report this comment

In regard to Eric Hansen's comment "A friend in the business told me every single flight instructor he ever dead (I should add they all died in airplanes).
This is NOT true. Bob Merena was his instructor and a friend of mine. He died of a heart attack.... not in an airplane. It sounded catchy Eric, but not true

Posted by: Steve Kahn | December 27, 2010 4:02 PM    Report this comment

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