Early alert to FAA was given no heed
By Mitchell Zuckoff, Globe Staff, 07/20/99
An employee of Martha's Vineyard Airport alerted federal aviation officials that John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane was unaccounted for nearly four hours before a phone call from a Kennedy family friend early Saturday morning triggered a massive air and sea search.
The first phone call - which cited Kennedy by name - prompted no action by the Federal Aviation Administration. It was made at 10:05 p.m. Friday, only 25 minutes after Kennedy's plane was lost on radar and presumably crashed into the ocean.
''Actually, Kennedy Jr.'s on board. He's, uh, they wanna know, uh, where he is,'' Adam Budd told an unidentified FAA employee at the Bridgeport Automated Flight Service Station.
Until the plane is found, there is no way to say if an earlier search would have made a difference in the survival chances of Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, or her sister, Lauren Bessette.
However, a transcript of Budd's call, obtained by the Globe, adds fuel to questions about whether the FAA responded as promptly as it should have, and as quickly as its own regulations specify, to concerns about Kennedy's missing plane.
FAA officials said they responded appropriately to the call.
''We've researched the matter and found the FAA was not told that the aircraft was overdue, or that there was any indication there was a problem or a cause for concern that would raise warning flags,'' said Eliot Brenner, a senior FAA spokesman.
Kennedy was flying to Martha's Vineyard to drop off Lauren Bessette, after which he planned to fly to Hyannis to attend the wedding of his cousin Rory Kennedy. A well-dressed couple with a child who had come to the airport to meet Lauren Bessette grew concerned when the plane did not arrive as expected by 10 p.m.
They sought help from Budd, 21, a Bridgewater State College student from Sharon, Mass. In a telephone interview last night, Budd said he is also a licensed pilot who has worked for the past month as a ramp attendant at the airstrip.
Budd said he first called the airport tower, but was told Kennedy's plane was not expected - Kennedy had filed no flight plan - and that it had made no radio contact.
Budd then called the FAA outpost in Bridgeport, Conn., a repository for flight plans that also provides pilots with weather information and notices about flight restrictions.
During his conversation with the unidentified FAA employee, Budd asked if the FAA could track an airplane. Budd said he was with airport operations at Martha's Vineyard, then mentioned Kennedy's name and provided two possible aircraft numbers for Kennedy's plane.
The employee questioned Budd repeatedly about who he was and where he was calling from. After Budd gave his name, the FAA employee asked if he was, in fact, with airport operations. He ultimately told Budd, ''We don't give this information out to people over the phone.''
At that point Budd gave up, saying, ''I'll just have 'em wait,'' and then, ''All right, it's no big deal.''
In the interview, Budd said the transcript tells only part of the story.
''You have to hear his tone of voice, because the guy was kind of rude to me, making me feel uncomfortable,'' he said. ''I've called before and they were happy to help me out. The guy might have been having a bad day or something. I don't know.''
Brenner, the FAA spokesman, said the problem with the tone was Budd's. ''There was no tone of concern in the voice or anything out of the ordinary,'' Brenner said. ''There needed to be some expression that this airplane is overdue.''
In the end, no action was taken until a 2:15 a.m. Saturday phone call from Carol Ratowell, a Kennedy family friend. Her call to the Coast Guard set in motion a multiagency search that began with calls to regional airports and officially became a search and rescue mission at 3:28 a.m.
Globe correspondent Jennifer Babson contributed to this report.
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/20/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.