The Last Few Miles

Throughout the entire 50- odd minutes of flight Kennedy made no radio calls (none were mandatory), so we don’t have any recording of his voice and demeanor that might give us an indication of his state of mind. But some speculation based on the way most pilots respond to stress and anxiety are safe to make.

The sight that met Kennedy’s eyes after he passed Block Island must have been chilling. He would have been confronted with an utterly black sky. Every surface feature that in better weather would have been visible would have been, on that night, shrouded by the maddening haze.

The Last Few Miles

By the Book

An airplane’s instrument panel include» navigation instrument», engine instruments, and flight instruments, which help a pilot determine the airplane’s atti­tude, including the bank of the wings and the pitch of the nose. Using those instruments, a spe­cially trained ‘instrument’ pilot can safely fly without ever look­ing outside the window. Student pilots must practice instrument flying for three hours before ; becoming private pilots.

Without a horizon—without even the barely discernible line that separates sea from sky—John Jr.’s concentration may have been disturbed to the extent that he could not completely focus on his flight instruments. Looking outside the plane for some kind of light or visual reference, as a pilot at his skill level is likely to have been desperate to do, he would gradually have lost a sense of whether his wings were level or banked and whether the airplane’s nose was slowly rising into a climb or dropping into a gradual dive—a phenomenon called “spatial disorientation,” which we’ll examine later in the chapter.

One thing he didn’t do, according to the radar track, was turn back toward the reassuring lights of Long Island.

The Last Few Miles

Plane Talk

Pilots’ radio transmissions during emergencies often betray their emotions very clearly. Some pilots in dire situations, usually inexperienced ones, can be heard shouting with excitement into their microphones, and sometimes their panicked voices rise to a shrill cry. But experienced pilots pride themselves in staying cool under even the worst condi­tions. The difference between newcomers and veterans is often most telling in how well they keep a cool head during an emergency.

Surrounded by darkness and growing uneasy, Kennedy probably leaned forward in his seat on the left side of the cockpit. He might well have pressed his face closer to the windshield in hopes of spotting the faintest light on the Rhode Island coastline to his left or a ship’s light on the ocean 5,500 feet below—anything he could use to get a fix on his position.

Carolyn or Lauren might have noticed already that the sky outside the plane was unusually featureless, and John Jr.’s increasing anxiety might have put them on alert. If they had a reading light turned on in the cabin, he might have called back to them to turn it off to reduce the glare on the inside of the Plexiglas windshield.

Up in the cockpit, the soft green and red lights that lit the instrument panel would have been reflecting a faint glow off the inside of the windshield, making visibility even worse.

Kennedy might have, very naturally, begun turning his head from side to side, first slowly and then faster, as he looked for lights that might help guide him. The instinctive turning of his head in search of a visual cue would have sent the delicate balance organs inside the inner ears spinning. As we’ll see shortly, a distorted sense of balance could have contributed to the fatal maneuver that soon began.

The Last Few Miles


Does haze sound like an inconse­quential barrier to safe flying? Think again, haze, which is caused by tiny particles of fine dust or salt scattering light to create a bright, milky blur, can almost blind a pilot with bright light in daytime and can block out much of the fight coming from the ground at night.

The Last Few Miles

On Course

Vision is about 90 percent re­sponsible for giving us our sense of balance. Without our vision, including the peripheral vision that we call "seeing out of the corner of our eyes," we quickly lose an accurate sense of balance.

Radar records show that when the Saratoga was about 34 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard airport, it began a 700-foot-per-minute descent from its cruising altitude of about 5,500 feet. That descent rate is perfectly normal for a planned descent, but Kennedy had no reason to be descending over the middle of Rhode Island Sound so far from Martha’s Vineyard, unless he was trying to slip beneath the haze layer.

Kennedy kept up the descent until he reached 2,300 feet, where he leveled the plane, still in the thick haze. Perhaps already growing disoriented, John Jr. rolled the airplane into a right turn combined with a slight climb to 2,600 feet. He may not have intended to make the turn, and with no visible references to orient them, John Jr., Carolyn, and Lauren might not have even noticed the turn taking place.

Radar records show that the right turn halted for about a minute, and the airplane leveled off at the same time, perhaps as Kennedy noticed on his flight instruments that he had been turning.

John Jr.’s Saratoga was now 16 miles from Martha’s Vineyard airport and seven miles from landfall on the southwestern tip of the island. It was then that the plane rolled into yet another right turn—again probably the result of a faulty sense of balance caused by the impenetrable haze. This right turn became the final, fatal maneuver.

The Last Few Miles

By the Book

Graveyard spirals are often triggered by the smallest of ліг disturbances scarcely noticed by the passengers and crew. But because airplanes are slightly unstable when it comes to keep­ing the wing level—instability that designers create purposely in order to give the plane better maneuverability—a little bit of turbulence that lifts one wing farther than the other can set off a slight bank that, if it goes unnoticed, can deepen into a graveyard spiral.