Considered the Chevy Caprice of the skies, the plane that disappeared en route to Martha's Vineyard carrying John F. Kennedy Jr. was a high-performance aircraft he bought just three months ago -- one year after he had received a license to fly.
The Piper Saratoga II HP, a single-engine, low-winged plane with retractable landing gear, could seat up to six and, according to industry experts, has had a good safety record since it was first manufactured in 1965.
"It's been an extremely safe plane from what we can tell," said Shelly Snyder Simi, director of communications for General Aviation Manufacturers Association in Washington.
About 7,500 Piper Saratoga planes are in service. Combined, the planes log more than 500,000 hours each year. The last time one was involved in a fatal crash was December, the plane's manufacturer said.
Popular among private pilots and businesses, the Saratoga models could be outfitted with wood-grain cabinets with a beverage cooler, a pullout executive writing table, AM-FM CD stereo, flight phone, laptop computer work station with fax-modem capabilities, and a multimedia entertainment center with videocassette player and LCD viewing panel.
Some pilots have dubbed it the "Chevy Caprice" of light planes because it is reliable and comfortable. In company press releases, the Saratoga planes are heralded as "the ultimate off-road vehicles."
"It's considered a high-performance airplane, but among the ranks of high-performance aircraft, it's one of the easiest to fly," said Warren Morningstar, a pilot and spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the world's largest civil aviation group. "It's a very safe, very solid, very good airplane."
Although the plane had a good safety record, flying it at night, in a hazy sky and under visual flight rules -- the reported conditions Friday night -- would be challenging, aviation experts say.
"What the pilot wants to have is a relatively distinct horizon to see the ground and be able to determine the aircraft's altitude by looking outside," Morningstar said.
Pilots who are not "instrument-rated" -- and Kennedy apparently was not -- guide the plane by sight, using the horizon, lights or landmarks. Weather conditions on Friday night included hazy skies, which aviation experts said could have made it harder to see the shoreline.
"At night, your visual horizon is not going to be as distinct, and if it's hazy conditions, your vision is going to be obscured," Morningstar said.
Under visual flight rules, a pilot must be able to see at least three miles in the distance and stay below clouds.
Kennedy received his pilot's license in April 1998 after training with FlightSafety International, a flight school based at La Guardia Airport in New York, Simi said. The school, with offices throughout the country, teaches more than 50,000 pilots and aircraft maintenance technicians each year.
Kennedy trained at the company's Vero Beach, Fla., headquarters, Simi said. Company representatives there declined to comment yesterday.
To receive an initial certification, a student pilot must complete a written exam, log at least 40 hours of flight time and pass a final "check ride" with a Federal Aviation Administration examiner. Most students log 60 or 70 hours before seeking certification. It is not known how many hours of flight time Kennedy completed.
Kennedy bought his 1995 red-and-white Saratoga used and registered it with the FAA on April 30. When new, the 1995 Saratoga sold for about $325,000 to $350,000. About 30 were made that year.
When Kennedy boarded his plane Friday night with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren, in Fairfield, N.J., he reportedly had an injured ankle, the result of a recent accident while landing an ultralight airplane.
Pilots need both feet to operate pedals controlling the plane's rudder. But it is unclear whether Kennedy's injury would have impaired his ability to fly, Simi said.
"It's hard to tell," Simi said. "He would [be able to fly] if he had full functioning of the foot."
The trip from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard is about 200 miles, or about one-quarter of the aircraft's range.
Powered by a 300-horsepower Lycoming engine, the Saratoga has a top speed of about 170 knots. With a full load of fuel, it could fly about 850 nautical miles.
Kennedy's plane was delivered with a full complement of modern instruments, as well as an automatic emergency locator transmitter, or ELT, said Chuck Suma, president of The New Piper Aircraft Inc. of Vero Beach, Fla.
Such devices can be triggered manually or automatically upon a crash. They emit signals that can be detected by satellites and homed in on by search aircraft, but not after the plane has become submerged.
The plane was not delivered with flotation devices or flight data recorders, Suma said.
The Saratoga was one of two airplanes owned in Kennedy's name by a corporation, Random Ventures Inc. According to FAA records, it carried the tail number N9253N. The other plane owned by Random Ventures, a Cessna 182, had a similar number, N529JK.
That registration paid homage to Kennedy's father, the late President John F. Kennedy, with his initials and his birthday, May 29.
Wire reports contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 7/18/99