Kennedy Likely Lost Control
In Final Moments
By Tony Munroe
OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mass. - John F. Kennedy Jr. may have lost control of his plane in the final moments before its terrifying plunge into the sea, according to new data released by officials on Tuesday.
National Transportation Safety Board officials said Kennedy's plane made a series of rapid turns and changes in altitude during its final moments on approach to Martha's Vineyard airport, which aviation experts said clearly indicated he lost control of the aircraft.
"We call that a graveyard spiral," said Ernie Carnahan, a flight instructor of 18 years' experience from Ft. Pierce, Florida. "He may have lost his instrument lights. We may never know, but the bottom line is, he lost control. That's what the last portion tells us," Carnahan said of the new details that emerged from the NTSB news conference.
Kennedy's Piper Saratoga was about 20 miles (30 km) from the airport at about 2,300 feet (700 metres) when it started a turn to the right and climbed to 2,600 feet (800 metres), where it remained for one minute heading southeast, chief NTSB investigator Robert Pearce told a news conference.
About one minute before the last radar reading, which was taken when the plane was at 1,100 feet (335 metres), it turned back toward the east, descending normally at about 700 feet (215 metres) per minute.
But 30 seconds into that turn it started another right turn, then "entered a rapid rate of descent" of "possibly greater than 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) per minute," Pearce said. On Monday, the NTSB increased its previous measure of Kennedy's descent to 4,700 feet (1,400 metres) per minute.
"I'm sure you can draw conclusions based on the debris we've been bringing in, which is fragmented," Pearce said when asked about a plane hitting the water at that speed.
Kennedy, 38, the only surviving son of slain President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and her sister Lauren Bessette, 35, all perished. Their bodies have not been found.
Divers searching the waters off Martha's Vineyard on Tuesday for wreckage honed in on two particular target sites within a few hundred yards (metres) of where radar information indicates the plane hit the water.
"We have a theoretical splash point that we feel very good about," said Adm. Richard Larrabee of the U.S. Coast Guard.
"We are investigating ... to determine whether or not we have a piece of debris from the wreckage," he said.
Several other possible wreckage sites were eliminated on Tuesday, Larrabee said, although officials said another seven or eight sites had been identified and would need to be investigated.
Divers were working in difficult conditions, including 52 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) water at depths of 115 feet (35 metres), with only about eight feet (2.4 metres) of visibility, according to Capt. Bert Marsh of the Navy's salvage operation team. They were only able to spend about 15 minutes at the bottom before heading back up, he said.
Two National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ships, the Rude (pronounced Rudy) and the Whiting, use sonar to detect debris on the ocean floor. Searchers are using three search ships, a patrol boat and the U.S. Navy salvage ship USS Grasp.
Officials said divers on Tuesday found "a few items" from the plane, but would not comment on their nature.
Officials at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on their own initiative measured the plot of the late president in case his son was to buried there. But a spokesman said there had been no request from the family to bury Kennedy there.
Memorial services were reportedly being planned, but neither the Kennedy nor the Bessette family announced or confirmed any plans.
Police on Martha's Vineyard, where Kennedy spent some summers at the house of his late mother Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, said among the debris that washed up on Saturday were documents identifying the aircraft. Police said the pouch was found on a public beach. Pieces of metal and foam were also recovered from the coastline.
Other wreckage, including a wheel, a rudder pedal, luggage and insulation, has been found. Pearce said the largest plane debris recovered was a piece of overhead molding from the cabin, which was about 10 square feet (0.93 sq metres) in area.
Everything found so far was either floating or had washed up on shore, he added.
Kennedy had his pilot's license for just more than a year and bought the high-performance Piper Saratoga three months ago.
The plane crashed around 9:40 p.m. EDT on Friday (0140 GMT Saturday) on a flight from New Jersey. Kennedy had planned to drop Lauren Bessette on the island before going on with his wife to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, to attend the wedding of his cousin Rory Kennedy.
Breaking their silence on the loss of Kennedy, whom many Americans remember as a 3-year-old saluting the coffin of his father in 1963, the family said on Monday they were stricken with "unspeakable grief and sadness."
Sen. Ted Kennedy issued the statement after visiting the New York home of John's sister Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, 41, now the sole survivor of the White House family of 1961 to 1963. Their mother died of cancer in 1994.
Coast Guard officials said on Sunday night that Kennedy, founder of the glossy political monthly magazine George, his wife and sister-in-law, a financial executive, could not have survived the crash and prolonged exposure in the sea.