Plane fell fast, probe finds
JFK search yields no breakthroughs
By Mitchell Zuckoff and Matthew Brelis, Globe Staff, 07/20/99
John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane dived toward the ocean far faster than previously thought, plummeting at a deadly rate that must have caused a locomotive-like roar of wind in the cockpit, investigators and aeronautics authorities said yesterday.
Also yesterday, Federal Aviation Administration officials confirmed they were alerted that Kennedy's plane had not arrived as expected at Martha's Vineyard Airport more than four hours before a call from a Kennedy family friend triggered the search. They said they had taken no action because the earlier call failed to raise ''warning flags.''
Yesterday's search efforts ended with no new sign of the plane or the bodies of Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, or her sister Lauren Bessette. Massachusetts State Police divers reached a single potential ''target'' off Martha's Vineyard that turned out to be a rock shaped like a plane's fuselage. A sophisticated Navy ship built for underwater search and retrieval operations was scheduled to join the effort today, and at least nine other target sites had been identified.
At the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, where John and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy were headed for the wedding of his cousin, Rory Kennedy, an American flag was lowered to half-staff. Also yesterday, the victims' families released their first public statements on the tragedy.
''We are filled with unspeakable grief and sadness by the loss of John and Carolyn, and of Lauren Bessette,'' said a statement by Senator Edward M. Kennedy. ''John was a shining light in all our lives, and in the lives of the nation and the world that first came to know him when he was a little boy.''
The parents of Lauren Bessette and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy said, in part, ''John and Carolyn were true soul mates and we hope to honor them in death in the simple manner in which they chose to live their lives. We take solace in the thought that together they will comfort Lauren for eternity.''
Spontaneous memorials of flowers, notes, and offerings popped up around the country, including John F. Kennedy's birthplace in Brookline.
FAA descent data casts dark light on crash
The new information about the plane's rate of descent cast a dark light on the flight's final moments Friday night.
In the last sightings recorded by radar, Kennedy's Piper Saratoga II was heading downward at 4,700 feet per minute - roughly eight times what experienced pilots said was the normal rate of descent for the single-engine airplane.
The plane dropped from an altitude of 2,200 feet to 1,100 feet in 14 seconds, said Robert Pearce, a regional director for the National Transportation Safety Board who is heading the investigation. Pearce declined to characterize the effects of such a rapid descent, but aeronautics authorities and pilots said catastrophe was all but certain unless Kennedy took immediate, decisive counteraction.
''I would not categorize it as a full-over dive, but you are in serious trouble and need to take corrective action in a hurry or it is all over. And at 1,100 feet, you don't have any room to make mistakes,'' said a highly placed federal aviation source familiar with the investigation. ''Everyone is speculating that he was in a spin, but that is just speculation.''
While some pilots are known to become so disoriented when flying in difficult conditions that they are not aware that the plane is losing alititude, banking, or even flying upside down, the source said the plane was traveling so quickly the air sounds would have given them a terrible warning.
''They were aware they were going down,'' the official said. ''With that kind of descent rate, it is going to be noisier than hell in the cockpit.''
A spokeswoman for the plane's manufacturer, New Piper Aircraft Inc., said the company was reviewing the information provided by the NTSB to determine what effect such a speedy descent might have had on the Saratoga's frame. She said the company would release a statement ''in the near future.''
Michael Danziger, a pilot who owns the same model plane as Kennedy, said the normal rate of descent is 500 feet to 700 feet per minute. ''It is not unsafe to descend at 1,000 feet per minute, but I don't think the dial goes a heck of a lot farther down than that,'' Danziger said. In fact, the vertical speed indicator goes to 2,000 feet per minute; Kennedy was heading downward more than twice as fast.
Munir Hussein, the New Jersey factory owner who sold Kennedy the plane in April, said the plane never descended that quickly during his 200 hours of flying it. ''That's too fast for that plane to descend,'' Hussein said. ''He would not be able to recover from the descent that fast.''
Marvin Wyatt, a controller at the Martha's Vineyard Airport tower the night of Kennedy's flight, said visibility was good at the airport at Kennedy's expected arrival time, but it was poor over the water just off the island. Wyatt said that would have made it a ''challenging'' flight for a pilot with Kennedy's experience.
Wyatt declined comment on whether he had radio contact with Kennedy's plane. NTSB officials said there was no word from Kennedy's flight during the last 40 minutes it was known to be in the air.
The new information about the plane's descent offered at least one possible explanation of why one of the first parts of the plane recovered was a piece of the landing gear. The plane may have been so shattered upon impact that the gear was ripped free from its housing, aeronautics authorities said.
''When a plane impacts at that speed, the chances are it will break up,'' said Eugene Covert, professor of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Another scenario is that Kennedy lowered the landing gear in a desperate effort to slow his plane. ''It is one of the things pilots in retractable-gear aircraft do in loss-of-control situations,'' said Warren Morningstar, a pilot and director of media relations for the Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association. ''You want to try to increase the drag on the airplane to slow it down and you can do that by putting out the gear.''
Also yesterday, records released by the FAA showed that the 1997 annual inspection of the plane that Kennedy bought last April uncovered a problem with its propeller control. A bolt was rubbing against the engine, and if allowed to continue could cause the propeller to jam, the report said. The mechanic who inspected the plane said he had found a similar problem with four other Piper Saratogas and had recommended that the company issue a safety bulletin about the problem or make a design change to deal with it.
FAA records show that on several occasions since 1990, Piper Saratogas or similar models had lost their power or the pilot had inexplicably lost control of the plane, causing it to crash. The FAA's thumbnail descriptions of the incidents did not include causes of the power losses.
Pearce, the NTSB official, said Kennedy's plane underwent an annual maintenance inspection on June 28. Two weeks later, the plane underwent additional maintenance for adjustment of its magnetic compass, which is used by pilots to set a heading.
Pearce and other NTSB officials said it was premature to speculate on the cause of the crash. However, information released yesterday appeared to rule out some possible causes, including running out of fuel. Pearce said the plane was last refueled July 11, when Kennedy bought 62 gallons, more than enough to make the trip from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., to Martha's Vineyard several times over.
It was not known what quantity of fuel was already in the tanks when the 62 gallons were added, so it is possible there was even more fuel on board. The plane has a capacity of 120 gallons.
Even if the engine died, a federal aviation source said, it is unlikely that the plane would reach such a high rate of descent, because the plane is designed to glide without power at a much slower rate for several miles. And if Kennedy had run out of fuel, it is likely he would have made a distress call.
Yesterday's search efforts had something of an anticlimactic feel, coming hours after Coast Guard officials said the mission had changed from searching for survivors to recovering the dead and the plane wreckage.
Most of the focus was on 10 Massachusetts State Police divers who had been waiting for nearly two days to head into the water. ''It's a low-stress dive. It's not a kid, it's not a homicide,'' said Trooper William Nasuit, who in 1997 recovered the body of Jeffrey Curley, the slain Cambridge 10-year-old whose remains were found in a Maine river.
The divers went out at shortly after noon and came back about three hours later.
Visitors flocked to the JFK memorial in Hyannis yesterday, and two dozen bouquets of flowers were placed on the hedges that encircle a granite wall bearing the slain president's name.
Someone left a tiny teddy bear and a note written in crayon: ''I am going to miss you.'' Above it was a picture of an airplane drawn in orange crayon.
''I wanted to pay my respects,'' said Daisy Rodriguez, 35, of Brooklyn, N.Y. Her friend Teresa Barone, 26, of New Jersey, said, ''JFK Jr. was of our generation. This was the son coming up. We all hoped that he had great things ahead.''
At the JFK museum on Main Street in Hyannis, more than 550 people walked through the doors yesterday. An impromptu exhibit included photographs of John F. Kennedy Jr. as a boy, including one in which he holds his father's hand as they walk to a candy store in Hyannis Port.
''I was shocked when I saw his picture there,'' said Margie Conley, 51, of Brooklyn, N.Y. ''It's like a bucket of water hitting you.''
Stephen Kurkjian, Brian MacQuarrie, Cindy Rodriguez, and Stephanie Ebbert of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 07/20/99.
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