Category Flying and Gliding

The Inner Ear

Deep inside the inner ear is a tiny, complex organ called the labyrinth that looks like a cross between a tuba and a toy gyroscope. The portion of this organ that we’re concerned with is a set of three bony loops called the semicircular canals.

One loop of the semicircular canals is horizontal, lying flat like a bicycle inner tube on the driveway. The other two canals stand upright at right angles to each other. All three are connected in a structure called the vestibule.

Inside the bony exterior of the semicircular canals is a fleshy lining of hairlike fibers bathed in fluid. When you turn your head, the bony structure and the tiny hairs inside it turn with it, only the fluid is slower to accelerate. It’s just like rotating the outside of a glass filled with an icy drink. The glass rotates in your hands, but the icy liquid inside begins to move only very slowly, creating a difference in velocity between the rim of the glass and the liquid just inside.

The Inner Ear

On Course

There are a couple of other boy organs that contribute to equi­librium. Cristao have tiny jelly­like blobs that sense rotation, and maculae are bundles of nerves on a stem that tips down­ward when you bend down Like the semicircular canals, both of these organs can be easily fooled in an airplane at a high altitude unless your eyes arc working well.

The tiny hairs in the semicircular canals are forced to sway in one direction or another from the difference in speed between the fluid and the bony structure, and nerves beneath each hair detect the degree of swaying. In our brains, this is transformed into a sensation of movement.

Without visual cues to help make sense of some of the sensations coming out of the semicircular canals, the vestibular system can relay completely inaccurate messages to the brain.


Let’s imagine a pilot flying in complete darkness. If he enters a right – hand bank very gradually, the hairy fibers in the semicircular canals may not be sensitive enough to detect the movement of the fluid. Although JFK Jr.’s airplane was gradually entering a right turn, his vestibular system wouldn’t have known it.

Now let’s imagine that the pilot glances at his flight instruments. He’d at least see a right bank indication on his attitude indicator and his turn indicator—two gyroscopic instruments. Surprised, he might move the aileron controls abruptly to the left to level the wings again. Now, that rapid control movement to the left would certainly create enough of a jolt to the hairy fibers to send a signal to the brain: We’re turning left.

That left-turn signal is wrong in this case. The pilot is actually moving from a right bank to level flight. But because the semicircular canals didn’t pick up the right bank and only noticed the left-hand movement of the ailerons to level the wings, the brain perceives a left turn.

The power of these sensations is hard to describe. In the scenario we’ve just described, the pilot might find the sensation of turning left so powerful that almost nothing would convince him he had done otherwise. He would be very likely to respond with rightaileron control to correct what his senses tell him was a left turn, even though his eyes told him a moment ago that he was correcting a mistaken right turn.

The Inner Ear


One of the most dangerous things a pilot can do when flying in instrument conditions or in very dark skies like John Kennedy Jr. experienced is to make any rapid movement of the head, The jostling to the semicircular canals can set up a host of conflicting, and inaccurate, sensations of movement

The Inner Ear

By the Book

Spatial disorientation is the

catch-all term used to describe any situation in which a pilot isn’t certain of the attitude of his airplane relative to the horizon.

The power of these illusions was brought home to me some years ago during a training session on the topic of spatial disorientation.

I was placed in a contraption consisting of a simple chair mounted on a swivel. After an instructor told me to buckle myself into the seat (I thought this was an overprecaution), he had me lay my head on its side with my eyes closed. He rotated the chair with me in it, accelerating it so gradually that I had only a slight sensation of movement. In reality it was spinning quite fast at the end.

After about a minute of this, he gave me a signal to sit upright and open my eyes, while he simultaneously stopped the chair’s rotation. What I felt was an overwhelming sensation of falling forward toward the floor. The feeling was so powerful that I yelled—an expletive, if I recall—and put my hands out in front of me to stop myself from falling on my face. What others in the room saw was a confused pilot sitting in a still chair, in the grip of a powerful balance illusion of falling that lasted for about a minute, and, I confess, turned my stomach.

Had I been in an airplane when this situation occurred—as when a pilot bends down to search for a flashlight or pencil on the floor while the airplane is turning—I believe

that no amount of discipline and attention to my instruments would have prevented me from pulling the airplane into a steep climb. The illusion I experienced, called the Coriolis illusion, surpassed reason and went straight to the level of instinct and fear.

In this case, and in other balance illusions, the solution lies in prevention. Pilots must understand how these illusions are created and learn to avoid them. In the case of John F. Kennedy Jr., it’s unlikely that his brief flying experience would have equipped him to prevent balance illusions or to correct them if they occurred.

Подпись: The Least You Need to Know V Kennedy's decisions before and during his fast flight probably caused the accident that took three lives. ► Kennedy chose not to communicate with radar controllers, who may have been able to help him out of trouble. ► Like the spin, the graveyard spiral is a deadly situation for a pilot to find himself in. ^ The vestibular system provides our body's sense of balance, but without sight it's easily fooled.

Because the accident occurred in total isolation from air traffic control, and because human factors leave behind no evidence that can be examined in a lab, the cause of the crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife and sister-in-law will never be known with any certainty. Still, the sparse evidence we have of its last few minutes leaves us with a powerful lesson—that every pilot is subject to the same destructive attitudes and is saddled with the same unreliable senses. If any good comes out of John Jr.’s death, it will be a heightened focus on safety among general aviation pilots for decades to come.

The Folly of Night VFR

We can find some of the seeds of Kennedy’s tragic death in FAA regulations that allow relatively inexperienced pilots to fly under rules that permit visual flying at night, also called night VFR.

In essence, the FAA permits a private pilot with only a smattering of experience with instrument flying to fly at night as long as the sky is relatively free of clouds.

Never mind the fact that in some parts of this country, as in the John F. Kennedy Jr.’s case, there are times when weather conditions that are technically acceptable are, in practice, daunting even to a trained instrument pilot.

Regulations in many nations throughout Europe and the rest of the world ground a private pilot at night—a rule that encourages many to get the extra training they need to be a safer instrument- rated pilot. Perhaps adopting similar guidelines would cause American amateur pilots to seek the extra training they need and take the difficulties of nighttime flying more seriously.

The Deceptive Sense of Balance

The accident that took the lives of Kennedy and his passengers was the result of some or all the factors we’ve previously described. We’ve talked a little about the graveyard spiral, and how pilots are susceptible to false sensations when flying in low visibility conditions at night. How, exactly, are these false sensations produced?

Dangerous Thinking

Setting aside the technical missteps Kennedy made that night, let’s consider the possibility that he also might have been a victim of a more insidious danger—dangerous thinking. Kennedy might have fallen prey to some of the hazardous attitudes that can cloud judgment, sway decision making, and blur the clear view of risks.

One hazardous attitude is machismo, the attitude that makes pilots tell themselves, “I can do whatever I set my mind to, and I’ll prove it.” Another is a sense of invulnerability. Sometimes, the reasoning goes, “I’ve seen other pilots take off in worse conditions than this, and nothing ever happened to them.” In other cases, it might sound

like this: “I’ve always been able to get myself out of scrapes before.” In any case, the pilot who feels invulnerable ultimately thinks “Nothing bad is going to happen to me.”

Hazardous attitudes like these, and others that demonstrate impulsiveness, resignation to fate, and rebellion against authority, are as potentially dangerous as flying with an invisibly cracked propeller: It might not happen on this flight or the next, but eventually the hidden danger will become all too obvious—all too late.

Dangerous Thinking

Plane Talk

Some of the most challenging "‘intangible" lessons that instructors sometimes have to teach is the danger of hazardous attitudes. Many students take longer to break hazardous attitudes than they do to learn the most advanced flying skills. When it comes to hiring professional pilots at airlines or elsewhere, hiring officials may spend more time trying to detect potentially dangerous attitudes in a pilot than anything else. That’s why airline job interviews include not only technical examinations but also questioning by experienced pilots and psychologists.

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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.

Personal and Professional Stress

Stress related to Kennedy’s professional and personal life may have played a role in the disaster. The financial decline of his magazine George was well known, and was no doubt preying on his mind. Also rumored were his marriage difficulties with Carolyn. There is always a possibility that this combination of stress factors made it harder for Kennedy to concentrate solely on his flying.

Physical Discomfort

Kennedy was probably suffering some mild physical discomfort on this flight, too. He had broken his ankle, and the cast had just been removed a couple of days earlier. The press emphasized this factor a lot, but Kennedy’s foot probably didn’t play a direct role in the crash—he would hardly have been using the rudder at all when the accident occurred. But it’s worth mentioning that physical discomfort, whether from illness or injury, can be a powerful distraction during a flight.

Personal and Professional Stress

On Course

Kenned/s accident occurred in the cruise segment of the flight, statistically the safest flight seg­ment of all. Most accidents— more than half—occur during descent and landing. A third of them occur during takeoff and climb. Cruise accidents account for only about 10 percent or so of all accidents.


Had Kennedy made a different choice of routes, the accident might never have happened.

There are two primary routes from northern New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod—the familiar Long Island route that includes a lengthy overwater leg, and a second route that hugs the southern coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Without adding any significant flight time (though it would perhaps have required a bit of additional planning time), Kennedy could have flown a brightly lit route over suburban Westchester County and into Connecticut. There, guided by the lights of Bridgeport, New London, and finally Newport, Rhode Island, which would have been more visible through the haze, he could have made a much shorter over-water hop to Martha’s Vineyard. The short hop from there to Hyannisport would also have been relatively well-lit.

However, Kennedy seems to have succumbed to one of the most pernicious influences on decision making: opting for the familiar over the unknown, regardless of other factors. He chose the familiar route he had flown before, despite the fact that weather conditions for that route were not the same he had flown in before.


Kennedy was not, by his own admission, a superb pilot. He was like most other pilots with a few months of experience—eager to learn, but immature in his skills and judgment.

Kennedy’s sense of his own limitations might have caused him to look, with a growing anxiety, at the setting sun, whose disk was probably touching the horizon at about the time he was paying for his merchandise at the Sunoco convenience store. The sky was already becoming hazy, and Kennedy had many minutes of preflight preparation, weather checking, plane inspection, taxiing, and preflight engine check left to complete before takeoff. He must have realized at the gas station, and maybe as early as leaving his office, that he would have to fly in the dark over Long Island Sound to reach Martha’s Vineyard, the most challenging leg of the trip.



Kennedy might have committed four out of the eight leading causes of airplane accidents dur­ing his last flight: loss of direc­tional control, poor judgment, poor preflight planning and de­cision making, and poor in-flight planning and decision making. (The others are not maintaining airspeed, not staying far enough away from other planes or obstructions, inadvertent stalls, and poor crosswind handling.)


Kennedy no doubt felt tremendous pressure to get to his destination. The Kennedy family was gathering in Hyannisport for a Saturday wedding, and John Jr. must have felt pressure to arrive in time.

In flying vernacular, the pressure to get to the destination regardless of the risk is called “get-there-itis,” and it’s often a fatal disease. If Kennedy was feeling rushed, it would explain some of his decisions before and during the flight. A pilot in his position needed to rethink the notion of flying at all that night. In fact, other pilots with more experience than Kennedy had examined the persistent coastal haze that day and called off their flights.

Challenging Weather Conditions

The weather conditions were perhaps the most difficult factor to deal with. Had conditions been better, Kennedy’s visual flying skills would have been up to the task of making the flight. Had the weather been worse, FAA rules would have taken the decision out of his hands. As fate would have it, conditions that night fell into the gray area that forced Kennedy to make a difficult decision himself—and make the wrong one.

AH Signs Urged Caution

The factors that combined to work against Kennedy on his last flight seem nearly endless. A chain reaction of bad decisions and mistakes is usually what we notice when we examine any accident with the luxury of hindsight, and the Kennedy tragedy is no exception.

Had Kennedy better understood the complexity of the decision-making process, what pilots call human factors, he might have dissected his own decisions before they snowballed into tragedy. Even the pilots who understand them sometimes have a hard time making safe decisions.

AH Signs Urged CautionPlane Talk

Much was made in the media of the fact that Kennedy hadn’t filed a flight plan. Flight plant don’t possets any mystical quality that enhance the safety of a flight Though they should always be filed when appropriate, they are little more than a notice to the FAA of a planned route and expected time of arrival that helps narrow the search for a plane if it turns up missing. The fact that a pilot did not file a flight plan doesn’t mean the pilot didn’t plan his route. It simply means he didn’t report the route to the FAA for search – and-rescue purposes.

Following are some of the factors that added up to tragedy for JFK Jr., his wife, and her sister. An experienced pilot—one who is sensitive to the vulnerability of the human factors involved in aviation decision-making—would have readily recognized them as warning signs.

AH Signs Urged Caution

By the Book

Human factors is a relatively new field of study that examines the collection of factors that can erode a pilot’s performance, such as a pilot’s emotional state of mind, his physical health, his relationship with other crew members, and his response to stress. Researchers hope to iden­tify and help reduce hazards caused by human weaknesses.

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.

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.

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.

The Last Few Hours

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 Last Few Hours

Plane Talk

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.