Weather suspected as cause of crash

Inexperienced pilot can lose track of horizon in fog, haze

John F. Kennedy Jr.

July 20, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HYANNIS PORT, Mass. -- It was another hot and hazy day yesterday on Cape Cod -- just the kind of weather that makes flying airplanes here a complicated and sometimes risky endeavor, according to pilots, instructors and officials at the small airports that dot the peninsula and its islands.

Since the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s six-seat Piper Saratoga on Friday night, one of the questions asked by mourners and the media has been: Should he have flown at night, over water, in a haze that nearly blotted out the stars?

Private and commercial pilots on Cape Cod ask themselves those questions regularly. Here, the view of the horizon is often obscured by the Atlantic's mists, forcing the pilot to rely on the plane's instruments instead of his eyes to fly steady.

"You see how hazy it is today? On days like this, you get a bad visual reference on the horizon," said Oliver Parent, a pilot and instructor, at Cape Cod Airport. "You can get screwed up and confused."

Yesterday, investigators searching for Kennedy's plane said that it plunged 1,100 feet in 14 seconds, slipping off radar.

Several factors could have caused such a crash, pilots say: engine failure, lack of fuel, structural faults. But they also say that a disoriented pilot with little experience could have gotten into trouble.

Pilots have different terms for what it's like to lose their grasp on the horizon.

It's like flying in a fish bowl, they say, or in a tin can. It can induce vertigo, so that they can't tell up from down, left from right. It's like roaring down the highway -- without lights.

Long-time pilots such as Parent -- who learned to fly 14 years ago, at age 10, at the Flight Safety Center in Vero Beach, Fla. (where Kennedy trained last year) -- say the key to flying around the Cape, especially at night, is instruments.

Pilots use six instruments on the plane's console, including an attitude indicator called the "artificial horizon," to keep them flying straight and level when they have no horizon to tell them where they're going.

But looking at instruments instead of out the windshield can be awkward.

"You have to be trained to look at your instruments and trust your instruments before you trust yourself," said Parent, who often saw Kennedy and his wife, Carolyn, at Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis. Kennedy sometimes kept his first plane, a Cessna 182, there.

Kennedy, who earned his pilot's license a year ago, was training for his instrument flying certification.

John Foster, president of SkyTech Inc., based at Martin State Airport in Essex and the original owner of the Piper Saratoga that Kennedy had been flying, said the 1995 plane contained all the necessary instruments to fly in foggy weather. But he said it can take a part-time pilot years to become proficient in the art of flying with instruments.

"It's very difficult to take someone who is training as a VFR [visual flight rules] pilot, who is trained to rely on the horizon, and take the horizon away from them," he said. "You might as well drop a black curtain over the front of the airplane."

"We have [cancellations] all the time," said Michelle T. Haynes, marketing director for Cape Air/Nantucket Airlines, the Cape Cod region's largest local airline. "When you're flying one of the foggiest regions in the country, weather is a big factor."

Sometimes it means people die.

Last year, a solo pilot crashed his plane into the water and died while attempting to land during foul weather at Provincetown Airport, at the farthest reach of Cape Cod, even though air traffic controllers urged him to land elsewhere.

"We have two or three fatals on the Cape each year, and it's usually on bad weather days and it's usually someone who's not familiar with fog," said Scott LaForge, vice president of Cape Air. "Sometimes the best thing you can do is sit on the ground."

But that doesn't always happen. According to statistics from the American Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the fatal accident rate of one per 100,000 hours of flying for small private planes doubles to 2.4 fatalities for night flights.

Pub Date: 7/20/99

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