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What Happened to JFK Jr.?

It is indeed unfortunate that the most talked about aviation subjects tend to revolve around tragic events. Losing a pilot, famous or otherwise is always a great loss. But when a public figure/personality attracts the attention of the media, well, it usually makes a bad situation worse.

Watching reporters amidst the feeding frenzy (who obviously aren't aviators) repeat theories from who knows where really is an injustice. Besides being bad for public perception of General Aviation, what bothers me almost as much is the misperceptions caused by such irresponsible reporting.

As an FAA Certificated Flight and Instrument Instructor that has a couple dozen hours in a Saratoga, perhaps I can demystify a couple of things for any non-pilots reading this. I will not attempt to explain or theorize what happened that fateful night of July 16, 1999. I'll leave that to the FAA and NTSB investigators who have more of the facts than anyone else.

The Saratoga
All boiled down, the Piper Saratoga is nothing more than a big Cherokee. Actually, it's more like a big Piper Turbo Arrow--which is essentially a turbocharged offshoot of a Cherokee. During my check out in the Saratoga, the only difference between it and any of the other single engine prop planes I'm checked out in was a rather thorough weight and balance review and check ride at maximum gross weight.

While flying the Saratoga or any other aircraft over max weight and/or out of CG range (out of acceptable balance) is asking for big trouble for any pilot, my point is aside from having a slightly heavier control feel, everything else was pretty much the same old, same old. There's really nothing special or unusual about the Saratoga that a pilot with complex aircraft, and high performance aircraft endorsements would have trouble with.

Continued VFR into IMC
One theory that seems to be repeated more than any of the others isn't very surprising. The most common killer of pilots is known as "continued VFR (Visual Flight Rules) into IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions)." Although according to the NTSB weather was reported as 3-5 miles visibility in haze (technically not IMC), at night over the ocean with only a sliver of the moon low in the sky (as it was also reported), it can be very disorienting. Even though VFR pilots are trained to use their instruments even if they can see the horizon outside on bright sunny days (known as integrated flight training), one can't discount the possibility of instrument failures.

Flying by the seat of your pants...
Regardless, it's very easy (not to mention very common) for non-pilots to think "shouldn't he have known or felt that he was going down/losing altitude even without his instruments?" This is perhaps the biggest fallacy and major hurdle for student pilots to overcome. Early in flight training, a student pilot needs to learn that your senses will deceive you. While virtual pilots learn to rely on instruments out of necessity (due to the limitations of 2D single monitors), we're fortunate enough not to be burdened by contradictory bodily sensations.

To give you a rough indication of what a real pilot faces, here are a few of the most common optical illusions and causes of spatial disorientation:

The leans—if an airplane banks too slowly for the inner ear to register the movement and the bank is abruptly corrected by the pilot, it can create the sensation of banking in the opposite direction. Needless to say, the pilot usually responds with a bank the aircraft back into its original dangerous bank.

Coriolis illusion—abruptly moving your head while in a turn causes a sensation that you're moving or rotating on a completely different axis. If you remember what it was like to lean your head back while riding a merry-go-round when you were a kid you'll understand.

Graveyard spin—when a pilot recovers from a spin that ceases to stimulate his senses, this creates the illusion of being in a spin in the opposite direction. This causes him or her to enter a spin back in the original direction.

Graveyard spiral—a coordinated descending turn that has ceased stimulating the pilot's motion sensing system will cause the pilot think he/she is in a wings level descent when they see the altimeter unwinding. His/her first reaction is to pull back on the yoke. This only causes the spiral to tighten and increases the rate of descent.

Somatogravic illusion—rapid acceleration can create the illusion of being in a nose up attitude. This causes the pilot to pitch the nose of the aircraft towards the ground.

Inversion illusion—an abrupt change from climbing flight to level attitude can cause the pilot to feel like he's/she's tumbling backwards. The pilot generally responds by pushing the aircraft into a nose-low attitude.

Elevator illusion—an abrupt upward motion such as one caused by a sudden updraft can create the illusion that the aircraft is in a climb. This causes the pilot to put the aircraft in a dive to counter the false sensation.

False horizon—weather and environmental factors such as sloping cloud formations, dark terrain with ground lights and stars visible at night, and other geometric patterns of ground lights can cause the pilot believe that he/she is not flying level. This causes the pilot to put the aircraft some other (usually dangerous) attitude.

Autokinesis—at night, a static light will appear to move when the pilot stares at it for more than a few seconds. This can cause the pilot to lose control of the aircraft while attempting to align it with the light.

Flicker vertigo—a flickering light at certain rates may cause dizziness, nausea, and/or other problems such as convulsions and unconsciousness.

We may never know what really happened to John Kennedy Jr., but as fun and exciting as flying can be, we need to realize that it can also be a very dangerous business.
Ben Chiu

©1999 Ben Chiu

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