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Feds say JFK Jr.'s plane fine, weather maybe worse than forecast

By Glen Johnson, Associated Press, 07/30/99

WASHINGTON -- John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane apparently was functioning properly when it slammed into the ocean, but the weather may have been worse than a forecast Kennedy had received, the government said Friday.

The National Transportation Safety Board, in its first update in a week on its investigation of the July 16 crash that killed Kennedy, his wife and her sister, said about 75 percent of the wreckage has been recovered from the waters off Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The wreckage shows no sign of in-flight breakup or fire, and the engine appeared to have been working fine at the time of the crash.

Investigators also said Kennedy received a weather forecast via the Internet for his flight from Fairfield, N.J., to the Vineyard. The report, issued at 6:30 p.m., or about two hours before takeoff, was for good visual-flight-rule conditions, with visibility of six to eight miles.

No weather warnings were issued to pilots flying Kennedy's route, which took him over the Long Island Sound along the southern coast of Connecticut.

"However, pilots who had flown over Long Island Sound that evening reported after the accident that the in-flight visibility over the water was significantly reduced,'' the safety board's statement said. "Interviews of those pilots will continue.'' Witnesses reported a haze in the darkening summer sky.

Kennedy, 38, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and her 34-year-old sister Lauren Bessette, were flying Kennedy's single-engine Piper Saratoga when it crashed about 7 miles southwest of the Vineyard.

The couple had intended to drop off Miss Bessette on the island before flying to Cape Cod to attend for the wedding of Kennedy's cousin Rory, youngest child of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, at Hyannis Port, Mass.

After a five-day search, the bodies of the three victims were recovered from 116 feet of water, still strapped into their seats.

The safety board, which is investigating the accident, said the Navy salvage ship USS Grasp raised about 75 percent of the plane. Among items taken from the water was a primitive recording device, which was destroyed by the impact with the water.

The wreckage was handed over to investigators and subsequently taken to a secure hangar at the Coast Guard Air Station on Cape Cod.

The wreckage included about 80 percent of the left wing, 60 percent of the right wing, the engine and the propeller, as well as the cockpit instrument panel.

The propeller "indicated the presence of rotational damage,'' which would indicate it was still spinning when the plane crashed. Radar tapes show the plane was traveling about 185 mph before it began its plunge about 9:40 p.m.

The engine was sent to Williamsport, Pa., for examination by its manufacturer, Textron Lycoming. The propeller was transferred to a facility near Dayton, Ohio, for examination by Hartzell Propeller. Both inspections were conducted under supervision of the safety board, as is standard practice, and the parts have since been returned to Cape Cod.

No evidence was found during the examinations of conditions that would have prevented either the engine or the propeller from operating,'' the statement said.

The board said the aircraft's Global Positioning System unit and selected cockpit instruments will be sent for examination to its laboratory in Washington. The radios, meanwhile, have been carried to their manufacturer, Allied Signal, in Kansas City, Mo.

The statement said investigators have learned that Kennedy had about 300 hours of flying experience, not including his time in the Saratoga, which he bought in April. Kennedy received his pilot's license in April 1998.

The NTSB has said it hopes to complete its investigation in six to nine months.

Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and Adm. James M. Loy, the Coast Guard commandant, paid tribute to those who "stretched themselves to their limits'' in the search for the Kennedy plane.

Representatives from more than a dozen federal, state and local police and rescue agencies accepted commendations for their efforts in a ceremony at a Coast Guard command center in Boston.


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