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Some pilots say conditions, plane may have been too much for JFK Jr.

By Anthony Flint and Matthew Brelis, Globe Staff, 07/18/99

JFK Jr.'s plane
This is an October 1998 photo taken at Caldwell Airport in New Jersey of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s 1995 Piper Saratoga. The plane was owned at the time by Munir Hussain, who sold it to Kennedy in April. (Photo courtesy of Munir Hussain)

Manufacturer: The New Piper Aircraft Inc., Vero Beach, Fla.
Engine: Lycoming TIO-540-AH1A 300 HP at 2500 rpm, turbocharged, direct drive, six-cylinder, fuel-injected.
Maximum speed: 166-192 knots, depending on configuration.
Wing span: 27.9 feet.
Cruising range: 815 nautical miles at 15,000 feet..
Fuel: Total 107 gallons in four tanks.
Seating: Six seats in club configuration.
Doors: Two, right forward and left rear
Price: Latest model sells for about $400,000. John F. Kennedy Jr. is believed to have paid about $300,000 for his used 1995 model.

Visibility wasn't optimal. He wasn't licensed to fly using instruments only, and some fellow pilots suggest he should have brought a flight instructor. And he had just upgraded to a more powerful and complicated plane.

But as he headed for the small airport on Martha's Vineyard Friday night, John F. Kennedy Jr. knew where he was going.

"He was a good pilot and as familiar with this airport as someone of his experience could be," said Arthur Marx, chief pilot for Flywright Aviation at Martha's Vineyard Airport, where Kennedy and his Cessna Skyline 182 were seen frequently over the past year.

Kennedy bought the new plane -- the 1996 model Piper Saratoga II HP, a 300-horsepower, single-engine six-seater that pilots compare to a sport utility vehicle -- in April for an estimated $300,000. It was originally used by a private North Carolina company, then by Munir Hussain of Hasbrouck, N.J., who sold it to Kennedy through a broker. Government and company records indicate no history of mechanical problems.

Kennedy learned to fly at Flight Safety International in Lakeland, Fla., and obtained his basic pilot's license two years ago. Since then, fellow pilots estimate he probably logged at least 200 hours flying time -- not a rookie, but not deeply experienced -- in smaller, less powerful planes such as the Cessna. Then he "traded up" to the Saratoga, doubtless looking for more carrying capacity and power, fellow pilots say.

The Saratoga has state-of-the-art equipment, including an automatic pilot, but also has two fuel tanks that require the pilot's attention to switch from one to another to avert disaster. "You're very busy in the cockpit," said Myron Goulian, head of Executive Flyers Aviation in Bedford, a 35-year-old family-owned flight school. "That might have been a little bit too much plane for him."

Goulian also questioned why Kennedy took off Friday evening from the airport in New Jersey in the first place. Pilots were reporting poor visibility due to haze, he said. Kennedy was not licensed to fly using instruments only, did not have a flight instructor accompanying him, and may have had an injured foot as well -- although one N.J.-based pilot, Larry Lorenzo, said Kennedy could have operated the rudder pedals on the plane fairly easily. "If he could walk, he could fly."

Kennedy also didn't file a flight plan with authorities, though he was not required to, and did not ask for a private service that tracks private flights, either.

"He shouldn't have been in the air, in my opinion. He should have been at home or in a bus or a train," Goulian said. "That was a bad judgment call, to leave, especially that late at night. From what I hear it was a horrible night."

The less-than-perfect visibility conditions -- known in flying parlance as "marginal VFR (visual flight rules)," made Kennedy's trip more challenging than normal, agreed Warren Morningstar, director of media relations for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a general aviation lobbying group.

Pilots in those conditions would have "a more difficult time discerning the horizon. The ability to see the horizon, or having a view of the ground, is needed for spatial orientation to keep the plane upright," Morningstar said.

Concerning the more powerful aircraft, Goulian said, "you just adjust to the performance capability of the airplane, and you need the experience level to keep up with it. It's great as long as you're ahead of the airplane. Some pilots jump from a 90 m.p.h training airplane to a 220 m.p.h. plane that's very slippery and high-performance, and they get through that phase. Others don't."

Morningstar said the Saratoga "is not the sort of plane you would want to learn to fly in, but it should not be a handful for a low-time pilot who had proper training in the aircraft. They are very solid."

"It is really easy to fly. My 6-year-old son can and has kept it flying straight," said Michael Danziger, a Lincoln pilot who owns a Saratoga and flies frequently to the Vineyard.

The plane has sophisticated avionics including GPS, or global positioning system, which would enable Kennedy to be sitting on the ground in Caldwell, N.J., plug in Martha's Vineyard, and get the distance and compass heading he should target. Among other things, GPS can tell a pilot where the nearest airport is in case of emergency.

The plane also has an autopilot, that with the press of two buttons, will keep the craft at a designated altitude and heading, and by moving a dial on a compass, the pilot can turn the plane even though the auto pilot is still engaged.

Danziger said he talked to Kennedy at the airport twice in the last year about flying. The first conversation occurred in October and Danziger said he told Kennedy he should get his instrument rating, because Martha's Vineyard weather conditions are often poor enough -- a cloud ceiling of 1,000 feet or less and visibility of less than three miles -- to require instrument flight rules, or IFR.

Danziger said he wrote Kennedy a letter and sent him a book on instrument flying. He said he talked with Kennedy again earlier this summer, after he bought the Saratoga.

"He said he had started instrument training, was about a third of the way through, and found it very confusing, tough sledding he called it." Danziger told him to keep at it, and compared it to learning a foreign language, that things would not make sense, and then all of a sudden, they would.


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