Kennedy Jr. Buried at Sea

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on August 2, 1999. Partner content is not updated.

As they waited last week for the inevitable confirmation that the most famous son of their fabled political dynasty was in fact gone, Americans were drawn to places with a special connection to the Kennedy family.

Kennedy Jr. Buried at Sea

As they waited last week for the inevitable confirmation that the most famous son of their fabled political dynasty was in fact gone, Americans were drawn to places with a special connection to the Kennedy family. They flocked to his apartment building in Manhattan, to Kennedy memorials around the country and to Arlington National Cemetery, where the eternal flame burns in memory of his father, the martyred president. They came also to a handsome brick building on Main Street in Hyannis, Mass., the town where Kennedys have summered for 70 years. Inside the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum are dozens of photographs of the family engaging in its legendary outdoor frolics - boating, golfing, swimming. Fifteen hundred visitors a day, four to five times the usual number, filed through, touching the photos and lingering longest by those picturing the little boy once known as John-John. On Wednesday, when they learned that his body had been found 35 m below the surface of the sea, museum officials put up a placard bearing words his father delivered back in 1962: "We are tied to the ocean," it read. "And when we go back to the sea ...whether it is to sail or to watch it...we are going back from whence we came."

Within 24 hours, the family of John F. Kennedy Jr., a man of grand lineage, godlike looks and modest accomplishment, closed the circle. From the stern of a naval destroyer, the USS Briscoe, they cast his ashes into the waves near the spot where his Piper Saratoga II, the six-seater plane he bought just three months ago, plunged to its destruction. The remains of the women who died with him - his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette - were placed in the water at the same time. Never before had the U.S. navy conducted a formal burial at sea for a private citizen with no record of military service. Top officials were unabashed about the reason: he was a Kennedy, the Kennedy of his generation. Thus did a great republic bow to the ancient principles of inheritance and nobility.

The final leave-takings confirmed Kennedy's passing at the age of only 38 as a totemic moment for the American people - or at least that part of the American people still in thrall to the Kennedy legacy or mesmerized by John Jr.'s potent combination of celebrity and history. First, a public memorial service at an Irish-Catholic cathedral in Manhattan. A thousand people - ordinary New Yorkers, not dignitaries - crammed inside while 3,000 more gathered outside.

The next morning, a private service at St. Thomas More, a small Upper East Side church once attended by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, John Jr.'s mother. The Kennedys have long been divided on whether to play out their moments of joy or grief before the public or behind closed doors. John Kennedy's sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the only surviving member of the family that embodied the Camelot moment in American life, successfully argued for keeping the mass celebrating the lives of her brother and his wife as private as possible. There were no cameras and the words used to pay tribute to the glamorous couple were not recorded - itself a minor miracle during a week that U.S. TV networks treated with an intensity usually reserved for moon landings and military victories over unruly dictators.

Privacy, though, is relative. The elite of American political life, including President Bill Clinton, came to pay homage, and thousands lined nearby streets for a moment of connection with a lost legend. Senator Edward Kennedy, John Kennedy's uncle and the only one of that generation's four brothers whose life was not cut tragically short, eulogized him as the boy who "from his first day ... seemed to belong not only to our family but to the American family."

Recent tragedies - from the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, two summers ago, to the high-school shooting in Littleton, Colo., just three months past - have provided a model of how to grieve publicly in the 1990s. The mourning for John F. Kennedy Jr. and the Bessette sisters followed the template, with instant shrines of flowers, candles, balloons, hand-scrawled notes and poems. At the couple's building at 20 North Moore St. in Manhattan's TriBeCa, a neighbourhood of old warehouses converted into trendy loft apartments, thousands laid tributes: "Come home, John." "Has anyone seen my old friend John-John?" "They will soar on wings like eagles." And, unavoidably: "Good night, sweet prince."

In Hyannis, three kilometres from the gracious old beach houses known collectively as the Kennedy compound in a section called Hyannisport, others gathered at a memorial to President Kennedy, an iron plaque bearing his profile and flanked by stone walls. They laid their flowers and cards on a low hedge. "John, Carolyn, Lauren - you will not be forgotten," read one. "John - we hardly knew ye! God bless," said another. A young girl named Anna Costello placed a small teddy bear on a note saying, "I am so sorry that this happened. This is very, very, very sad." Another card, placed by a family from Texas the day after the world learned that Kennedy's plane was missing, read: "There is always hope! His dad was stranded on an island for a week. We are hoping and praying for you all."

Of course, it was not to be. By late Sunday night, 48 hours after the plane failed to land as scheduled on the island of Martha's Vineyard off Cape Cod, searchers had given up hope of finding survivors. Under normal circumstances, they would have ended their operation right there. The U.S. Coast Guard almost never undertakes the expensive and risky business of recovering a private plane. But by then the White House was directly involved; Clinton himself directed the coast guard to keep looking. At first it was a daunting task, spreading over scores of square kilometres. By Tuesday, though, searchers had focused on a small area 12 km southwest of Martha's Vineyard. Air traffic control stations had tracked Kennedy's plane along his fateful route from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., along the coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island towards Cape Cod. Gathering the radar readings, experts from the National Transportation Safety Board pinpointed the most likely splash point.

Late Tuesday night, they found the wreckage. A remotely operated underwater vehicle lowered by a navy salvage vessel, the USS Grasp, identified the remains of the plane on the ocean floor at 11:40 p.m. Using a TV camera on the vehicle, searchers aboard the Grasp spotted the Piper Saratoga's registration number, N9253N, and Kennedy's body strapped inside the overturned fuselage. The next morning, two navy divers descended to the wreck and located the bodies of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, his fashion-icon wife who was just 33, and her 34-year-old sister Lauren, an investment banker at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in New York City. By 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, their remains had been raised to the surface.

Searchers recovered most of the plane, as well, which will help crash investigators figure out exactly why Kennedy and the Bessettes never made it to Martha's Vineyard. Most of the fuselage, a piece 2.5 to three metres long, was found intact. The wings and tail were torn off. Experts transferred the wreckage to an air base on Cape Cod, where they will reconstruct the plane and try to determine whether it suffered mechanical failure. Among other things, they will try to restart the engine to establish that it was still in working order.

Investigators were also tracing Kennedy's final day, the kind of flight training he had, and his plane's maintenance record. He was an enthusiastic but inexperienced pilot, who acquired his licence 15 months ago and was rated to fly using only so-called visual flight rules. That meant he had to rely on what he could see out the cockpit window to maintain his course and orientation. Fellow pilots and flight instructors said last week that Kennedy was a careful pilot who liked to fly every weekend. But a close friend, John Perry Barlow, recalled that after Kennedy crashed a paraglider in late June and broke his left ankle, he urged him to see it as a warning. "You know just enough to be dangerous," Barlow warned Kennedy, according to The Washington Post. "You have confidence in the air, which could harm you. You're going to find yourself flying in instrument conditions because you think you can."

All the evidence that emerged last week suggested that is most likely what happened. On Monday, July 12, still wearing an ankle cast, he flew his plane with a co-pilot to Buttonville Airport just north of Toronto to meet with officials of Magna International Inc., including vice-president Keith Stein and Belinda Stronach, daughter of the company's founder, Frank Stronach. Kennedy was asking the big auto-parts maker for funding for his irreverent political magazine, George, which is still not profitable four years after he founded it. Stein recalled how Kennedy explained that he needed a co-pilot to help operate the plane's foot pedals. "He was hopping around, and couldn't put any pressure on his ankle," Stein said. "He was clearly passionate about flying."

The following Thursday, Kennedy had the cast removed, and decided to fly solo the next evening to Martha's Vineyard. His plan was to drop off his sister-in-law, Lauren, there and fly on to Hyannis, where the Kennedys were gathering for the wedding of his cousin Rory, the late Robert F. Kennedy's youngest daughter. By last week, investigators were able to piece together the path of the final flight with great precision from radar records. Kennedy did not file a flight plan (and was not required to do so).

He took off at 8:38 p.m., a few minutes after sunset. At 9:33 p.m. the plane was at 1,700 m, 54 km west of Martha's Vineyard airport, and descending at a normal rate of 212 m per minute. Its descent continued for five minutes, to an altitude of 700 m. The plane started turning right and climbed to 790 m. Moments later, after a series of further turns, it plunged towards the water at a speed of at least 1,500 m per minute - or 90 km/h. The last radar reading located Kennedy 26 km from the airport at an altitude of 335 m. It was precisely 34 seconds after 9:40 p.m. The three passengers had no more than 10 seconds to live. Medical examiners said the impact with the water - as unforgiving as concrete at that speed - killed them immediately.

No one knows exactly what went wrong. But aviation experts quickly concluded that the flight fit a common pattern for inexperienced pilots, who can easily become disoriented and lose control, especially in bad weather or at night. The final moments - an out-of-control plunge towards water - matched the so-called death spiral that can doom a pilot unable to quickly use his airplane's instruments to get out of trouble. "It's easy to teach even a seven-year-old to physically fly a plane," said Warren Morningstar, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association near Baltimore, which lobbies for private plane operators. "The more important part to pass on is pilot decision-making, to make sure they can assess their own training and capabilities, those of their aircraft, and the weather to make a decision as to what makes a safe flight."

In six to nine months, investigators will report on what they think happened. For those who mourned last week, it will not be all that important. They paid tribute to a symbol and to something that John Kennedy's uncle, Edward, poignantly underlined in his farewell speech at St. Thomas More Church. "He had only just begun," the senator said of his nephew. "There was in him a promise of things to come."

The Flight, the Search, the Service

Friday, July 16, 8:38 p.m.: The Piper Saratoga piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr., carrying his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister Lauren Bessette, takes off from Essex County Airport in Fairfield, N.J., bound for Martha's Vineyard.

9:33 p.m.: The plane descends from 1,700 m to 700 m, 54 km from their destination.

9:38 p.m.: 30 km from the airport, the plane turns right, climbs to almost 800 m and levels off for a minute, then turns left, towards the east.

9:40 p.m.: The plane turns right again, begins a rapid descent and disappears from radar screens 26 km from the airport.

Wednesday, July 21: After the three bodies are located, in broken fuselage in 35 m of water, 12 km southwest of Martha's Vineyard, U.S. navy divers begin the job of reclaiming the remains.

4:30 p.m.: The U.S. navy salvage ship Grasp brings the bodies to the surface.

Thursday, July 22: The cremated remains of the three crash victims are released at sea from the destroyer USS Briscoe near the recovery site.

Regulations and Risks in the Night Sky

John F. Kennedy Jr. would most likely not have been allowed to make that fateful night flight if he had been a Canadian pilot with - as he had - only an initial private licence. "You might say our requirements are a bit more stringent in Canada," says Ken Mansfield, a spokesman for Transport Canada. It takes a minimum of 15 to 20 hours of specialized training on top of a basic licence to be certified to fly at night in Canada. In the United States, nighttime flying privileges are included in the basic initial licence. Canadian pilots also need to complete five night takeoffs and landings in the previous six months in order to take passengers up after dark; U.S. regulations call for three previous night flights within 90 days. Further, Canadian pilots must file a flight plan - in case a search and rescue mission is needed urgently - for any flight covering more than 25 nautical miles (46.5 km). There is no such requirement south of the border. But in either country, flying safely is left mostly in the commanding pilot's hands. "The danger," says Tarsha Owen, a chief flight instructor at the Calgary Flight Centre, "is in not being able to recognize if you are exposing yourself to a risky situation."

Maclean's August 2, 1999