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John F. Kennedy Jr. Plane Crash

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

Twenty-one years ago, on July 16th, 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr., son of US president John F. Kennedy, died when the light aircraft he was flying crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Kennedy's wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, were also on board and died. The single-engine Piper Saratoga had departed from New Jersey's Essex County Airport, and its intended route was along the coastline of Connecticut and across Rhode Island Sound to Martha's Vineyard Airport.

The official investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that Kennedy fell victim to spatial disorientation while he was descending over water at night and consequently lost control of his plane. Kennedy did not hold an instrument rating and therefore he was only certified to fly under visual flight rules. At the time of the crash, the weather and light conditions were such that all basic landmarks were obscured, making visual flight challenging, although legally still permissible.

JFK Jr. and Carolyn had lived a very private life. However, twenty years after the crash, a friend released some authentic video footage from the engagement dinner and wedding:

John F. Kennedy Jr. piloted a Piper Saratoga to attend the wedding of his cousin, Rory, to Mark Bailey at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. The plane also carried Kennedy's wife, Carolyn Bessette, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette. Lauren Bessette was to be dropped off at Martha's Vineyard Airport, while Kennedy and his wife would continue to Barnstable Municipal Airport. Kennedy had purchased his plane three months before the crash. The Bessette sisters were seated in the second row of seats, which faced the rear of the plane and were back-to-back with the pilot's seat.

Kennedy checked in with the air traffic control tower at Martha's Vineyard Airport before his departure. At 8:38 p.m. on July 16th, Kennedy departed from New Jersey's Essex County Airport, 21 miles west of Midtown Manhattan. At about 9:41 p.m., unknown until subsequent official investigations, Kennedy's plane crashed nearly nose first into the Atlantic Ocean. At 10:05 p.m., a clerical-duties summer intern contacted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) office in Bridgeport, Connecticut, about Kennedy's failure to arrive, but the intern was told that no information could be released to him over the phone. It was determined that the weather report given was not accurate and that Kennedy had not engaged the autopilot on the plane:

At 2:15 a.m. on July 17, the Kennedys reported to the local Coast Guard Air Station that the plane had not arrived. At 4:00 a.m., the U.S. Coast Guard began a search and rescue operation. Kennedy's cousin, Anthony Stanislas Radziwill, told the press that if Kennedy was still alive, "He'll find a way to get out. He possesses the will to survive, enough will for all three of them." Officials were not optimistic about finding Kennedy alive after several pieces of debris from his plane were recovered in the Atlantic Ocean. "There is always hope," Coast Guard Lt. Gary Jones said. "But unfortunately, when you find certain pieces of evidence, you have to be prepared for anything." Matt Berman, Kennedy's friend and business partner was one of the last people to speak to JFK Jr. before the flight and he recalls details leading up to the crash:

On July 19th, the NOAA vessel Rude finally located fragments of Kennedy's plane using side-scan sonar. The Rude captured high-resolution images which were used to create a three-dimensional map of the ocean floor. At 11:30 p.m. on July 20, the salvage ship USNS Grasp (T-ARS-51) identified the plane's fuselage. Navy divers found parts of the plane strewn over a broad area of seabed 120 feet below the surface, approximately 7.5 miles west of Martha's Vineyard. Here are more details about the flight plan and what what went wrong:

On the afternoon of July 21st, divers recovered the bodies of Kennedy and the Bessette sisters. Divers found the Bessette sisters were near the fuselage, while Kennedy himself was still strapped in his seat. Coast Guard Admiral Richard M. Larrabee said that all three bodies were "near and under" the fuselage, still strapped in. The bodies were taken to the county medical examiner's office by motorcade. Autopsies on the evening of July 21st performed by the county medical examiner's office found that all three had died upon impact.

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