It was exactly ten years ago last week (July 16, 1999) that John F. Kennedy Jr. went missing in his Piper Saratoga near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. It was later determined by the NTSB that the crash was caused by "The pilot’s failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation." Moreover, the fact that the weather was officially listed as VFR and this allowed Kennedy to fly that night despite his lack of an IFR rating along with his relative inexperience as a pilot (he also had an injured foot and was under stress in his personal life) also contributed to the crash.
Given the recent anniversary, Thomas B. Haines has posted an entry on the AOPA Pilot Blog where he recalls the day after Kennedy disappeared and how he was contacted by the media relations person at Piper Aircraft who said the company needed help from the AOPA because the media was already pouncing on them. Ironically however, on the following day while flying from Maryland to Pennsylvania, Haines found himself nearly in the same situation that Kennedy faced:
It was technically VFR, but the haze was incredibly thick–even by our usual standards. Even in daylight, I was relying mostly on the instruments, happy to have a solid autopilot in the A36 Bonanza I was flying. By my late-morning return to Frederick, the conditions were even worse, but I had wised up enough to file IFR. I couldn’t imagine flying in such conditions at night and over water with no horizon–especially without an instrument rating. What was Junior thinking?
A very good question indeed. Haines makes the point of always having a plan B for when you think you might be heading into a situation that you may not be able to handle as a pilot and this Plan B may even include just staying at home. Good advice worth heeding.