Thursday 27 August 2009

Why did JFK Jr.’s plane crash? It was because of his stupidity.

I hate being disrespectful of the dead but this message should be made public because it brings to the fore how important we must act on our instincts based on our common sense.

John F. Kennedy Jr. was the son of President John F Kennedy who was only five when his father was assassinated in 1963. He later became a senator and was leading an interesting and productive life when on July, 16, 1989; he decided to fly his plane home to Martha’s Vineyard with his wife and sister-in-law who were his two passengers. The intended flight path was along the coastline of Connecticut and across Rhode Island Sound to Martha's Vineyard Airport. It was daylight when he took off and it would be night when he was scheduled to reach his destination. He and his two passengers never arrived.

Other pilots flying similar routes on the night of the accident reported no visual horizon while flying over the water because of haze. One pilot later said that he chose to fly the next day instead because of the danger of flying visually blind in haze. The next day, it was sunny and clear.

In the last few minutes before Kennedy's Piper Saratoga light aircraft single-engine airplane crashed into the heavy seas off Martha's Vineyard, its radar track showed all the evidence of a mind wobbling in the tortured confusion called vertigo. This confusion steered Kennedy down a horrifying spiral to his death and that of his two passengers with him on that hot and hazy night on July, 16, 1989. If you've have ever felt the searing pain of belly-flopping off a diving board, you might rightly suspect that hitting the water at high speed is an impact not much different from colliding head on with a granite cliff.

The confusion and panic that killed Kennedy and his passengers must have arose in his mind as he struggled with the contradictory signals of his inner ear and its rational faculty. What he was suffering from at that moment is called spatial disorientation.

The inner ear that has evolved over millennia, measures one's movement in relation to the fixed sensation of gravity. Gravity always acts as a vector pointing straight down to the center of the earth. The inner ear is equipped with tubes of liquid that shift in response to any movement while the mind compares these signals against this fixed sensation of gravity. This balancing apparatus signals the pilot's mind and says, “You are strapped into a seat that is now as level as if you were sitting squarely at your kitchen table.”

However at the moment when JFK Jr. was feeling perfectly right-side-up, the aircraft instruments, when correctly interpreted, conveyed a different message to his eyes. The message was; “Your wings are tilted steeply to the right of level, the nose of this airplane is pointing way down, and your airspeed is already diving past the red line.”

The airplane's flight path creates forces that befuddle one's awareness of earth's gravity. Even when flying in total fog or total blackness of night by the sensations in the seat of his pants, JFK Jr. literally could not tell up from down or left from right. He was as helpless to move out of the airplane's acceleration field as he would be if he was pinned to the side of a spinning circus centrifuge when the floor drops away.

And here is the crux of the matter: his emotions drowned out the flight instruments' story about banking and diving at high speed. He concluded that he was really flying straight and level towards his final destination. The trouble was; he did not realize that his final destination and the direction he and his two passengers were heading were straight to the ocean floor.

All students of flying planes learn the importance of how to pilot an airplane in bad weather, solely by reference to the flight instruments.

Experienced pilots can fly along happily enough without any view of the world outside the cockpit by using the various gyroscopically stabilized instruments. The whole array of instruments provides accurate indications of the airplane's pitch, roll, and yaw which measures the degrees of motion around the three axes of flight.
The tricky part of flying on instruments is what happens after inevitable moments of distraction. You can be flying along happily when the air-traffic controller tells you to switch radio frequencies so you can talk to another controller before you fly out of radio reception range. You reach down to fiddle with the knobs, and when you look back up at your six basic flight instruments, from which you extract and integrate all the information you need to keep the airplane right-side-up, you think, “What's going on here?” You didn't feel the airplane bank, and you feel a sudden moment's confusion when you see a frighteningly different picture from what you expected to see.

So the real skill of instrument flying consists of the ability to regain control of the airplane when it inevitably veers off in alarming directions. Instructors recognize the importance of this lifesaving skill recovery from unusual attitudes and mindful instructors always give beginners big doses of it.

Recovering from unusual attitudes consists of one essential belief: your feelings cannot be trusted as the final authority on what the airplane is doing. Your mind is boss. The instruments are your window on reality, and you desperately need to understand the data they provide. The only power that can grasp and integrate this evidence correctly is reason, which evaluates experience by logic.

But what happens when an instrument fails? If, for example, the artificial horizon indicates that you're flying with the nose well above the horizon, and at the same time the airspeed indicator reveals a high speed with the engine at idle, and the altimeter and vertical-speed indicators reveal a dive, then the artificial horizon is clearly broken. Reality is contextually absolute. The pilot's task, no less than everyone else's, is to grasp reality, not to invent it, and we do this by applying reason to the evidence of our experience.

For example, on the instrument panel the artificial horizon shows a picture of an upside-down airplane. If you think you should be flying along straight and level, this sight will arouse fear and confusion. If you are doing aerobatics, rolling the airplane through 360 degrees of bank, this sight will arouse joy and a sense of control.

Why on earth was JFK Jr. allowed to take off into hazy weather he wasn't trained to handle? Why didn't the government do something to stop him? How could anybody with his lack of experience be given permission to take off on such a night? How can we make sure this won't happen again? Why can't the FAA create and enforce laws that are strong enough to stop this kind of thing?

When the waves closed over the watery graves of Kennedy, his wife, and sister-in-law, calls began to arise for greater regulation of private pilots. But there are some who will say that there were already plenty of regulations on the books to cover every facet of Kennedy's last flight.

How does one regulate common sense? And more to the point, what are the hazards of granting government the power to attempt regulating common sense?

We live in an era when most people assume that every new problem is properly open to solutions by government regulators. Implicit is the belief that the regulators have enough power, information and wisdom to meet any new challenge. Unfortunately, they don’t. Consider how regulators failed to protect the hundreds of thousands of investors from the greed of financial scammers in the past years.

Young Kennedy's pitiful death illustrates some of the issues that arise from the question of government regulation and the hugely vexing and misunderstood questions of the major political tension of our age; questions such as the rights of the individual versus the obligations of government to protect us from our own stupidity.

JFK Jr. should never have taken his plane up in the air that day. He had been warned that the weather was getting worse. He knew that it would probably be dark by the time he reached the small airfield at Martha's Vineyard. Even flying in the middle of the day when it is clear, can sometimes be difficult in finding your airfield but to do it at night is courting disaster if you aren’t fully trained and experienced.

While the bodies of Kennedy, his wife, and sister-in-law lay at the bottom of the ocean, officials began asking themselves what could have been done to prevent him from taking off that fateful day. Unfortunately, not much, if anything since he was licenced to fly the plane.

This was a sad case where his right to fly his plane took precedence over common sense which dictated that he fly the plane the next day when there was less haze in the sky and he did not have to rely on instrument flying alone. His exercise of that right cost him, his wife and sister-in law their lives; a very high price for his obstinence of choosing to fly anyway in the haze without sufficient experience at flying by instruments alone.

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