The Graveyard Spiral

At this point, the Saratoga’s bank angle probably increased gradually, shrinking the amount of lift directed upward away from the ocean and causing the airplane’s nose to drop and its airspeed to increase.

As the airspeed built up, the aerodynamics of the turn would have steepened the bank angle further, shrinking the upward lift vector even more. The cycle would have continued over a period of a minute or so, until the airplane was hurtling toward the sea in what pilots call a graveyard spiral.

A graveyard spiral, as its name suggests, is dangerous, but not necessarily deadly. An experienced pilot, in the unlikely event he would find himself in such a situation, would follow a precise procedure of reducing the throttle, leveling the wings, and gradually raising the nose to stop the descent. But if a pilot makes one wrong move and gets the steps out of order, the spiral can tighten and become lethal.

In fact, every student pilot is required to recover from this very predicament before they qualify for their private pilot certificate. But they usually do it in broad daylight by looking outside the airplane—not at night with nothing to refer to but their instruments, a far more difficult set of conditions.

Kennedy never recovered from the graveyard spiral. The Piper Saratoga struck the water of Rhode Island Sound in a 5,000-foot-per-minute descent, which would have felt like hitting a brick wall at 60 miles per hour. At that speed, in fact, water feels as hard as brick, and John Jr., Carolyn, and Lauren would have died before they knew what was happening.

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