I woke up this morning thinking about John F. Kennedy, Jr. I’m not sure what prompted this. I’m not exactly given to thinking about any of the Kennedys, but there it was. In particular, I was thinking about how he died. He was famous, adored (since the picture of him saluting his father’s coffin), rich, married to a beautiful woman, and a Kennedy, a prince in America’s royalty.
Most people, I think, are familiar with the basics: he flew into bad weather with his wife and her sister, and as the FAA put it in the report, he became disoriented and lost control of the plane he was flying. This led to him crashing into Long Island Sound. He’d had some instrument training, but wasn’t instrument-qualified.
Those sorts of accidents are not uncommon, especially among new pilots as Kennedy was. Usually what happens is what pilots call a “graveyard spiral.”
See, aircraft are not a natural environment for us. In particular, our inner ear can’t be trusted, because centrifugal force can make it feel like we’re flying straight and level when we’re actually turning.
Because of this, a “seat of the pants” pilot who has no outside reference can get into a situation like this: the aircraft banks slightly — because of a gust of wind or the torque of the engine or simply because no one can fly absolutely straight and level — and it feels like the plane is still straight and level by the seat of the pants. This is because the centrifugal force of the turn adds just enough to cancel the feeling of a tilt. But when a plane is turning, it loses a little bit of lift and starts to descend. This causes the plane to speed up a bit.
Pilots are taught from the beginning to control their airspeed with the pitch of the plane: pull the nose up, you slow down; push down, you speed up. So our hapless pilot pulls the nose up a little.
The problem is that since he’s turning, that actually causes the turn to tighten. By pulling the nose up, he’s also turning the front of the plane more toward the center of the turn. This causes the plane to lose more lift, to speed up more. Obviously, if the pilot continues to correct, it just gets worse and worse. The aircraft turns more and more tightly and descends more and more rapidly, until one of a very few things happen, all of them unpleasant.
I know someone who had this happen and survived because he came out of the clouds with time to correct, and he described it as one of the most terrifying moments of his life: he kept fighting the airspeed, and losing altitude, and then suddenly he was out of the clouds and the ground wasn’t below him — it was to his left. And very close.
The sad thing about any disorientation accident is that it can be avoided so easily. If you aren’t an instrument pilot, don’t fly into bad conditions. If you see you are flying into bad conditions, turn around. If you are flying and can’t see the horizon, then don’t trust your feelings.
The instruments will tell you what’s happening if you let them. Modern aircraft have an instrument called the “artificial horizon,” but every airplane has a “turn and bank indicator.” Look at those — and believe them, not what you feel.
When it comes down to it, the root cause of these accidents is lack of humility. You must be humble enough to admit when something is beyond your skills.