The Last Few Hours
On Friday, July 16, the day of Kennedy’s fatal flight, John Jr. spent the morning with a visiting publishing executive working on a plan to rescue his magazine, George, from financial problems. He spent the afternoon in Manhattan engaged in routine business duties and also visited a health club.
Kennedy had expected his sister-in-law Lauren Bessette to meet him at his magazine headquarters right after work. He, his wife Carolyn, and Lauren were planning to fly from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, to Martha’s Vineyard to drop off Lauren. Then Kennedy and Carolyn would continue to Hyannisport for a family wedding the next day.
Lauren was late leaving work at the Morgan Stanley Dean Witter investment bank. By the time she arrived at the offices of George, it was 6:30 p. m., just a couple of hours before sunset. She and John Jr. drove from midtown Manhattan through Friday traffic to Essex County Airport, a drive that took an hour and a half.
At 8:10, John Jr. and Lauren stopped at a gas station convenience store across the street from the Essex County Airport for some fruit and a bottle of water. By that time, the sun was only 15 minutes from setting. That meant that while weather conditions for flying were technically classified as visual meteorological conditions (VMC), darkness would soon fall, and that would demand some “blind flying” skills. Blind flying skills come into play on very dark nights while flying over unlit terrain and when weather conditions are classified as instruments meteorological conditions (1MC). This kind of flying, also called “flight by reference to instruments,” involves controlling the airplane solely by use of flight instruments, a specialized skill that Kennedy wasn’t yet proficient in.
By the Book
Regulators sometime* define weather by the broad classifications of visual meteorological conditions (VMC) or instruments meteorological conditions (IMC). Any pilot with a private pilot certificate can fly in VMC, which require visibility of three miles during daytime and five miles at night. Private pilots also have to stay away from clouds. Haze sometimes can meet the technical standards of VMC, though it seriously affecto visibility.
After Kennedy received an Internet briefing on the weather conditions, which included a warning that haze had reduced visibility to between six and eight miles, Carolyn arrived. John Jr., Carolyn, and Lauren boarded the plane, and at 8:38, more than 10 minutes past sunset and in deepening twilight, the Saratoga lifted off. Kennedy may or may not have known that other pilots who had just flown in from Long Island Sound, the direction in which he was headed, were reporting far worse haze conditions over the water than the six-to-eight-mile visibility being reported on the Internet.
The twilight was more than light enough for takeoff, and during training for his private pilot certificate, Kennedy would have made at least 10 nighttime takeoffs and landings. So landings on Martha’s Vineyard and then at Hyannisport would not have posed a serious problem. His training would also have included a cross-country flight of at least 100 miles. Night flying wasn’t new to him, and in good weather, the flight would have been routine.
Kennedy had a choice of a couple of routes to take. One would have taken him along the northern shore of Long Island, the other along the southern coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island. On previous flights to Hyannisport, the Kennedy family’s home, John Jr. had flown the Long Island route, keeping the lights of the Connecticut shore to his left.
The lights of Long Island were bright enough to provide a semblance of a horizon, even on the haziest night. At about halfway along the route, the tip of Long Island would fall behind Kennedy, but in clear weather he’d have the darker but still lightspeckled coast of Rhode Island to his left.
The National Transportation Safety Board studied Its general aviation accident records and arrived at a profile for a pilot most likely to be involved in an accident He is between 35 and 39 years old, has logged between 100 and 500 hours of flight time, is on a personal flight, and is flying in reasonably good weather. John Jr. fit the profile exactly, and the weather dunng his last flight was technically acceptable for visual flight rules, meaning he wasn’t required to have special blind flying training. Pilots are at highest risk of accidents between 100 and 500 hours of flight time because it is then that their confidence exceeds their experience, the NT5B says.
On that particular night, though, a menacing variable had been added to the familiar route—the hazy sky. Once Kennedy shot past Montauk Point, the last point of land on Long Island, he might not have immediately seen Block Island 12 nautical miles ahead. This is the first time in the flight when Kennedy might have felt uneasy.
With Long Island slipping behind him by three miles every minute, and the haze obscuring his view of Connecticut many miles northward over Long Island Sound, Kennedy would have had to be “on instruments” to control his plane in the deep darkness. His few hours of night-flying training would have taught him the simple basics of using his flight instruments to keep his wings level and his nose from rising into a climb or dipping into a shallow dive.
Kennedy’s lessons seemed to serve him well. He remained on course until he reached Block Island, and then, as the radar track shows, he made a right turn for a new course toward Martha’s Vineyard.