No Contact with Air-Traffic Controllers

Had Kennedy checked in with air-traffic controllers along the route, the outcome might have been different.

Air-traffic controllers don’t dictate a pilot’s route when the plane is outside the dense traffic areas around airports. On routes such as the one Kennedy flew that July night, controllers mostly help pilots identify the flight paths of nearby airplanes in order to prevent collisions. But controllers do have a subtle, steadying effect on pilots. They provide a firm voice and a connection to a world of resources at a time of crisis when a pilot might otherwise feel deserted and panicky.

For example, had Kennedy confided in a controller that he was having a hard time getting his bearings in the hazy night sky, a controller might have been able to put out a call to other pilots on that frequency asking if anyone had found clear sky, and if so at what altitude. Perhaps it would have been a simple matter of the controller’s recommending that Kennedy climb from his 5,500-foot cruising altitude to 7,500 feet to get safely above the haze into clearer sky with a star – or moonlit horizon. That could have been the difference between disorientation and renewed confidence.

No Contact with Air-Traffic Controllers

Plane Talk

Some controllers take a very protective view of the airplanes they track. After accidents of airplanes that a controller has been communicating with, particularly during an emer­gency that ends in tragedy, controllers often suffer severe emotional turmoil that has on some occasions ended in long-term depression or suicide. The FAA provides a variety of support services to controllers to case feelings of guilt that can linger for months or years after an accident

What’s more, veteran controllers, many of whom are pilots themselves, often have a keen ear for the subtle indications of a pilot who’s nearing his limit. A strain in the pilots voice or a sudden rushing of words could betray a pilot’s mounting fear. In some cases, the controller can make suggestions, such as a recommended direction of flight (known as a “vector”), that will guide the pilot toward a nearby airport.

To be sure, controllers can’t reach into the cockpit and fly the airplane. In the end, the pilot is the only one who can do that. And often, controllers are overworked and not able to pay such close attention to every pilot. But Kennedy had one tool at his disposal that would have gotten a controller’s full attention—he could have declared an emergency. Had Kennedy uttered that one word, “emergency,” a controller would have given him priority treatment. After transferring the other airplanes to a colleague in the radar room, the controller would have worked with Kennedy to try to resolve the situation.

We can’t help but wonder how the lives of the Kennedy and Bessette families, and the spirits of a nation, would be different now if John Jr. had reached out for help from the communications network that was set up for the sole purpose of helping pilots fly safely.

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