Newfoundland Pilot Had
Problem With Plane
Like Kennedy's

ST. JOHN'S, Nfld. (CP) -- The events surrounding a weekend plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law ring achingly familiar to a Newfoundland pilot who narrowly escaped a similar fate in the same type of aircraft.
Jim Matchim was flying his single-engine Piper Saratoga from Gander, Nfld., to Moncton, N.B., on Oct. 15, 1996, with his wife and another passenger on board when the engine failed suddenly over the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
"She just cut in a bang, I'll never forget it," remembers Matchim, a retired businessman from Eastport, Nfld. "I can't describe what races through your mind at a time like that."
Within 10 minutes, the plane dropped silently from 3,750 metres to no higher than 50 metres. "When we broke out of the clouds we were basically on top of 50-foot waves," said Matchim. "It was probably an impossibility to land safely."
As his passengers braced for a watery crash, Matchim's continuous efforts to restart the plane finally paid off. "When I hit the boost pump, almost in the water, a big sputter came out of her and I was able to level off just above the waves."
Matchim, who has logged close to 3,000 hours flying various types of small aircraft, landed safely at the Charlottetown airport.
The realization that the Kennedy flight did not end the same way made for a heart-wrenching weekend for Matchim as he sat glued to his television set awaiting the latest updates.
Kennedy, 38, his wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, 34, are presumed dead following an extensive search by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The son of slain U.S. president John Kennedy was en route Friday night to a family wedding in Hyannisport, Mass., when the single-engine Piper Saratoga he was piloting crashed into the ocean only a few kilometres from the Kennedy clan's seat of power.
While an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board is expected to take several months, there has already been much speculation by aviation experts about the role Kennedy's flying inexperience may have played in the crash.
He had logged less than 200 hours at the controls and did not have the training to rely solely on instruments in bad weather, leaving him vulnerable in what were dark, hazy conditions.
However, there was no indication the crash resulted from poor training or decision-making by Kennedy. Mechanical failure, fuel problems or other factors may have played a role.
Officials with Florida-based Piper Aircraft Inc. refused to comment Monday on individual cases or the Saratoga's safety record.
Company spokeswoman Kim Wheeler would say only that there are currently 7,500 Saratogas flying worldwide. There are an average of 500,000 hours logged for that fleet.
Among industry analysts, the aircraft appears to be widely respected and have an unblemished record.
The Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, a national organization that provides insurance and safety information to pilots, said it has never received a complaint about the Saratogas.
"There's no question that you can't rule anything out at this stage," said John Nance, an author of 10 aviation books and an analyst with ABC-TV.
"But there is no trend, nothing that you can hang your hat on and say this is obviously a recurring problem.
"It's a solid, proven design. It's a reliable airplane." Vernon Grose, a member of the NTSB, said the most likely scenario is that Kennedy became disoriented and either lost control or inadvertently flew into the water.
Matchim, however, remains unconvinced. He sold his plane back to Piper only a month after his near-crash. "I was too nervous and under too much pressure," said Matchim.
Engineers with Piper's national distributor in Buttonville, Ont., convinced Matchim water had gotten into his fuel prior to the flight. But despite a thorough inspection of the plane's engine -- prompted by unrelated calls for a cautionary check of all Piper Saratoga wrist pins -- the plane's engine would not start only a few weeks later while on the runway of a Florida airport.
This time, it was determined the problem was with the engine's fuel flow divider, which distributes power to the various cylinders. It was the last straw. "They didn't satisfy me at all, or give me comfort that it wouldn't happen again," said Matchim.
Three years later, Matchim feels guilty for not being more vocal about his troubles with Piper. "I don't want to be sitting down in another six months, a year or three years and listen to something like this again."