Retracing The Final Flight

Was It Vertigo?

It's the same kind of plane, a Piper Saratoga, and the same hazy kind of weather, at the very same airport that John Kennedy Jr. took off from three nights ago.

The key difference is that whereas Kennedy had only 100 hours of flight experience, flight instructor Bill Matukaitis has 5400 hours. He has flown into Martha's Vineyard more times than he can remember, and he knows how difficult it can be.

Matukaitis says that flying in hazy weather over water, after dark, can be very difficult. "It's like somebody took black spray paint to your windshield and covered it up so you can't see anything out," he says.

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To try to show us what might have gone wrong, Matukaitis agreed to use his Piper Saratoga to retrace Kennedy's final flight, as exactly as possible. 48 Hours Correspondent Bill Lagattuta accompanied him.

Kennedy arrived here at the airport at about 8 PM. Reports today say he had hoped to make the flight in daylight -- but his passenger, sister-in-law Lauren Bessette -- couldn't leave work early enough.

Private pilot Kyle Bailey was at the airport when Kennedy and his wife arrived. Bailey was also planning to fly to Martha's Vineyard.

"As it turns out the weather was a little bit hazy, the visibility was reduced to probably about four miles. And I decided to opt for Saturday morning instead," Bailey said.

But the weather wouldn't stop John Kennedy. Aviation authorities say his plane took off at 8:38 PM.

So Matukaitis takes off at exactly the same time. And just like Kennedy, he makes the turn towards Martha's Vineyard. At first, the flight is over land -- with plenty of landmarks for charting positions. Matukaitis points out the George Washington bridge, which connects upper Manhattan to New Jersey.

But after just a few minutes in the air, the sun sets, and the plane turns out over the ocean. Long Island disappears into the haze over the left wingtip. The only light is a tiny sliver of moon, and the blinker on the end of the wing. "There's nothing out there now," Matukaitis says. "As black as it gets."

At this point, Matukaitis can't see the horizon or the water below him. He's flying almost completely by his instruments. As an experienced pilot, that's all he needs. But John Kennedy attempted his flight without extensive instrument training.

Matukaitis says that in a dark, empty sky, any pilot can think he's flying straight, even if the plane is off course. At that point, a novice can become very disoriented. This is called vertigo, or spatial disorientation. "What you feel is straight and level is something other than straight and level," Matukaitis says.

At 9:39, Matukaitiand Lagattuta are approximately 16 miles west of Martha's Vineyard Airport, and descending down to 2500 feet.

That may have been what happened to John Kennedy as he approached Martha's Vineyard. No one knows exactly what happened after that.

The plane piloted by John Kennedy Jr. made a precipitous drop of 1,100 feet in 14 seconds -- a far steeper descent than previously thought -- as it approached Martha's Vineyard, National Transportation Safety Board officials said Monday evening after reviewing new radar data.

"That airplane would not come down that fast in any normal configuration," said Warren Morningstar, director of media relations for Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "The normal rate of descent you're shooting for as a pilot 500-700 feet per minute for passenger comfort." The Kennedy plane's rate of descent, according to the latest data, was 4,700 feet per minute.

Robert Pearce, heading the investigation for the National Transportation Safety Board, was reluctant to characterize the drop as unusual, but experts said the high-performance Piper Saratoga 32 generally is comfortable with a descent of around 1,000 to 1,500 feet per minute.

"For an airplane to just disappear without any word usually indicates the pilot didn't know he had a problem," Matukaitis says.

Even if the plane had lost it's engine, Matukaitis says, it still could have glided long enough for Kennedy to send a distress call. But that assumes Kennedy was in control of the situation.

Is it a good idea to fly a single engine plane, at night, over water in less than perfect weather? "If the pilot is up to it, and the plane is in working order, it is probably a good idea," Matukaitis says.

But in the hands of a newer pilot, a plane like this, in a sea of darkness, can drop from the sky.

produced by David Kohn;