Plane nose-dived into sea

Examination of radar yields new details of Kennedys' last flight

Search for bodies delayed, JOHN F. KENNEDY JR.

July 20, 1999|By Todd Richissin and Neal Thompson | Todd Richissin and Neal Thompson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mass. -- The plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. slammed into the Atlantic Ocean in a nose dive at a far greater speed than previously believed, officials said yesterday, and aviation experts said it likely was out of control and shattered when it hit the dark water.

Also yesterday, the Kennedy family and that of his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, began their first tentative steps from seclusion, issuing separate statements that spoke of "unspeakable grief," the love the couple had for each other and the hope that together in heaven they will take care of Lauren Bessette, Carolyn's sister, who also is believed to have perished in the crash.

At dusk, as a soft drizzle fell, an American flag that had flown high at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port all weekend was lowered to half-staff.

As the families released their statements -- which spoke of the three in the past tense -- searchers along the western coastline of Martha's Vineyard and nearby Nomans Island recovered small pieces of additional debris from Friday night's wreck.

But they did not find the bodies of the passengers nor any recording device that could hold Kennedy's final words.

No single recovered piece of debris was larger than two rugs that washed ashore -- they measured 2 feet by 2 feet -- lending more credence to theories that the plane slammed into rather than skidded onto the water.

Kennedy's plane was plummeting at a rate of 4,700 feet per minute just before it hit the water, according to Robert Pearce, the lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

In its final 14 seconds before disappearing from radar, the single-engine, six-seat plane dropped 1,100 feet, almost straight down.

It was gaining speed when it vanished from radar barely 1,000 feet above the water, dropping 500 feet in the final five seconds before radar lost it.

A normal descent is about 500 feet per minute.

"If you're in a bit of a hurry, you could do 1,000 feet per minute," said John Foster, president of SkyTech Inc., based at Martin State Airport in Middle River, the distributor of the Piper Saratoga HP II that crashed.

"The plane could even go to 2,000 to 2,500 feet per minute.

"Anything beyond that would be an emergency descent; 4,700 feet in that airplane, in my opinion, is uncontrollable."

Foster also said it is clear from the items recovered so far that the plane broke apart, which would have happened only if it struck the water at high speed.

SkyTech Inc., an aircraft distributor for seven mid-Atlantic states, bought the plane in 1995 directly from the manufacturer, Piper, based in Vero Beach, Fla., to use as a demonstration plane for potential buyers.

It sold the Piper to its original owner, who in turn sold it to Kennedy this year.

Among the debris recovered yesterday were a rudder pedal, a seat cushion, the two rugs and the plane's right main landing gear, including the brake assembly, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard M. Larrabee told a news conference.

Earlier, searchers and beach-goers recovered a head rest, insulation from the plane's cabin, luggage belonging to Lauren Bessette and a prescription bottle belonging to her sister.

Hope that an underwater image produced by sonar was part of the wreck was dashed when divers from the Massachusetts State Police found only a giant boulder, he said.

Searchers have identified nine other areas to focus on today, Larrabee added, but bad weather -- rain, fog and rough seas -- brought an abrupt end to the search yesterday and could delay divers again today.

Pearce, from the NTSB, said the new data on the plane's descent was obtained from radar in Nantucket. Additional data from military radar and other sources was being sought.

Investigators were interviewing people in New Jersey, where the plane took off, and on Martha's Vineyard, as well as pilots and instructors familiar with Kennedy's flight experience, Pearce said.

And they were seeking more information on a device that might have recorded Kennedy in the cockpit just before the plane hit the water.

"Our recent information is there is a device that records the last transmission through the radio." Pearce said.

"We do not know how this device works as yet, and we're trying to determine if it was operational in the aircraft."

Aircraft maintenance records might have been aboard the plane when it crashed, but invoices on land have provided some clues of recent maintenance, he said.

On June 28, the plane passed its annual inspection, and July 13 its magnetic compass was adjusted, Pearce said.

As searchers took on the grim task of finding wreckage and bodies, the families began to acknowledge publicly that they, too, realize there will be no survivors from the crash.

Kennedy, his wife and sister-in-law were flying from New Jersey to Cape Cod for the wedding of his cousin Rory.

Kennedy and his wife planned to leave Lauren Bessette at Martha's Vineyard Friday night before traveling to Hyannis Port for the celebration.

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