JFK Jr.'s routine flight goes awry
July 18, 1999
(CNN) -- Mid-summer, and the early evening sky over Fairfield, New Jersey, was clear and hazy. John F. Kennedy Jr.; his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette, boarded his single-engine, six-seat Piper Saratoga II HP.
Haze in a darkening sky can be disorienting to pilots, but the cloud ceiling and visibility were reported good for flight under visual rules, meaning a pilot must be able to see well enough to navigate and avoid other planes.
Kennedy, who got his pilot's license a year ago, is rated to fly visually, but not by instruments, which would be required in poor visibility.
Another pilot said he saw the Kennedy party at the airport. Kyle Bailey was also planning a flight to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts -- Kennedy's first destination -- but changed his mind because of the haze.
"I felt it was a little bit too hazy, especially when you get over water," Bailey told CNN's Gary Tuchman. "It could cause a problem when you have reduced visibility."
But Kennedy decided to make the routine flight anyway. Bound eventually for Hyannisport and a Kennedy family wedding -- with a brief stop at Martha's Vineyard to drop off Lauren Bessette -- the son of the United States' assassinated 35th president guided the plane into the air at 8:38 p.m. EDT.
The Saratoga is a high-performance plane capable of making the flight between New Jersey and the Vineyard in about an hour and a half -- and would have arrived at roughly 10 p.m.
At 9:39 p.m., a plane flying about 17 miles southwest of the Massachusetts resort island disappeared from radar scopes. Officials later speculated, then concluded that the plane was Kennedy's -- but in the early hours of his party's disappearance, officials were unaware of the radar data.
The Kennedy plane never landed on Martha's Vineyard. At 2:15 Saturday morning -- with the plane more than four hours late -- a Kennedy family friend contacted the Coast Guard and a worried Kennedy family member contacted the Federal Aviation Administration to report that the Saratoga was overdue.
After making standard initial checks of local airfields, the FAA called for a search-and-rescue operation.
The U.S. Air Force rescue center at Langley Air Force base in Virginia took charge about 3:30 a.m., coordinating searchers from the Coast Guard, Air Force, Air National Guard and others groups.
About that time, said Coast Guard Rear Adm. Richard Larrabee, the Air Force detected an ELT -- emergency locator transmitter -- from an area off the northern end of Long Island, which could have been on Kennedy's route to Martha's Vineyard.
The Kennedy plane was equipped with an ELT that should have been activated by a crash, and the Coast Guard sent out a boat to check out the signal. That boat found nothing during a three-hour search.
At 7:30 a.m.-- five hours after the plane was reported overdue -- the search intensified, with planes and helicopters combing a massive search area of 1,000 square miles.
If Kennedy had filed a flight plan, that would have helped narrow the search area. But aviation regulations do not require one for planes of such size.
At 1 p.m., searchers discovered the radar data indicating a disappearing plane and narrow their focus to an area about 17 miles southwest of Martha's Vineyard. A half-hour later, apparent confirmation that a plane has crashed washed ashore on Philbin Beach near Aquinnah.
"At about that same time, we got reports of debris being found on the beach by the state police," Larrabee said. "We have since confirmed that some of that debris has come from the aircraft."
Inside the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport, the Kennedy family waited. Rory Kennedy's wedding to book publisher Mark Bailey was postponed. Priests held a private Mass.
Just the night before -- as John Kennedy and his wife prepared to leave New Jersey -- friends and family members gathered at the home of Rory's mother, Ethel Kennedy, for a bridal dinner. Ethel Kennedy was married to Robert F. Kennedy, John Jr.'s uncle, who was assassinated in 1968.
"That ended at eleven and we left the Kennedy compound," said family friend Rowland Evans. "Nobody at that point, as far as I know, had any knowledge of impending tragedy at all."
Outside the compound, the Kennedys' Hyannisport neighbors have tied yellow ribbons on trees, hoping for the best.
Similar thoughts sifted through the Bessettes' home town of Greenwich, Connecticut.
The searchers vowed to carry on.
"I can tell you miraculous stories of people surviving," said Larrabee. "I can tell you in previous cases like this, we've searched as many as three or four days. We're not ready to give up on this yet."
Saturday night ended with no more signs of Kennedy's plane, and searchers grounded their planes when the haze returned.
Sunday morning, amid diminishing hopes, the search resumed.
Correspondent Carl Rochelle contributed to this report.
NTSB: JFK Jr.'s plane shows no in-flight break-up or fire
The New Piper Aircraft, Inc. "Saratoga II TC"
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