Instrument flying instruction during my pilot training taught me that without visual contact with the horizon or the ground, your inner ear can send totally inaccurate orientation information. The inner ear contains fluid-filled semicircular canals. As the body leans or turns the fluids move causing tiny hairs in the canals to send signals to the brain indicating your body’s position. Without visual references, even a slight movement can cause the fluid to move suggesting erroneous info. A blindfolded person trying to walk a straight line after spinning around is similar. It is virtually impossible to accurately know which way is up or down without visual reference. That’s what an airplane’s instruments are for. The aircraft’s gyro horizon and turn and bank indicator are life savers.
Flying by the seat of one’s pants is a fantasy. An instrument pilot is trained to trust his instruments even though his senses tell him that he is in a turn or climbing or descending. Being able to ignore those sensations takes hours of training.
Young John Kennedy took off in his Piper Saratoga—a complex aircraft—from New Jersey the night of July 16, 1999, for a flight to Martha’s Vineyard. His wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, were with him in the plane. A plane like the Saratoga is fast, but that also means problems can develop quickly. Kennedy was not an instrument-rated pilot but the weather briefing that night indicated he would have visual flight conditions (VFR).
Unfortunately, actual conditions were more marginal than forecast. Kennedy’s planned route was along the coast of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts before turning southeast for a short over water flight to Martha’s Vineyard. The coastal route would have given Kennedy visibility of numerous city lights en route. Regrettably, Kennedy left the coast at Rhode Island turning directly toward Martha’s Vineyard across open ocean.
Radar tracking indicates Kennedy immediately started a controlled descent, perhaps trying to find a break in the clouds and mist. Vertigo was apparent as the flight path became erratic with abrupt climbs and descents. Spatial disorientation is what the accident investigators called it. With no visual references, your brain tells you you’re turning, climbing, or descending. Your mind becomes scrambled. You feel confused, dizzy and nauseous. Vision is blurred, nothing makes sense. Trying desperately to stabilize the out-of-control aircraft mid the terrified screams of his two passengers, the plane pitched straight up, stalled, and dropped nose first in a 5,000 foot per minute dive. It hit the water 30 seconds later shearing off wings and ripping the engine from its mounts. Death was instantaneous.
The three bodies were recovered two days later tangled in wires and wreckage, still strapped in their seats. So sad. Young John was a risk taker as indicated by his other activities. The world lost a future luminary.