Blame Kennedy for ignoring basic rules . . .

July 22, 1999|By James Fallows

I RECEIVED my private pilot's license about the same time John F. Kennedy Jr. did last year. I will take the flight test for an instrument rating this week.

My first reaction to the news of Mr. Kennedy's plane crash on Saturday was, like everyone's -- heartbreak about the loss of such vitality and charm. But my second reaction as a novice pilot was: Why so many risks?

The lore of pilot training emphasizes that a disaster can happen to anyone, through sheer bad luck (like the explosion that apparently brought down TWA Flight 800). But disaster usually involves a compounding series of risks and errors, which in theory could have been broken at any point.

In this case, the links of the chain seem to have been: a night flight, over water, without a flight plan, by a pilot without an instrument rating or a lot of experience in a fast, sophisticated plane.

Night flight is easy in one way because you can see the lights of other planes for miles. But having the right depth perception for landing is harder, and any emergency is terrifying because you can't scour the ground for a place to land.

Flights over water, like flights over mountains, greatly compound the risk in a single-engine plane because there is no handy field or road to land on if the engine fails.

The parking lots of small airports often have signs posted asking: "Have you closed your flight plan?" The reason is that if a pilot has filed a plan but has not reported a safe arrival within 30 minutes of the expected time, search-and-rescue efforts begin automatically.

Even without a flight plan, pilots can request "flight following," which allows air traffic controllers to keep a watchful eye on their altitude and heading (direction) on the radar screen -- and talk to them immediately if trouble occurs. Mr. Kennedy filed no such plan.

Only a tiny part of instrument training involves learning to follow navigation signals. Most of the training is simulating emergencies -- loss of guidance systems, sudden descents and disorientation.

Imagine a driver's education class that involved dozens of tire blowouts and practice brake failures.

Mr. Kennedy had to learn all of this to pass the test to get his pilot's license.

Once you are "the pilot in command," you are the ultimate authority on whether a given trip is too risky to undertake. The Federal Aviation Administration's underlying assumption seems to be that with his own life at stake, the pilot himself will have the greatest incentive to break the chain of risks. Sometimes that incentive is not enough.

James Fallows wrote this for Slate magazine in which it first appeared.

Pub Date: 7/22/99

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