Las Vegas Tribune

July 23.1999

By Steve Miller

The Graveyard Spiral

I owned a flight school at McCarran International Airport from 1974 through 1982. Following my 13-year career as a flight instructor, I had the honor of being appointed Accident Prevention Counselor by the Federal Aviation Administration. I also currently own and pilot a PA 32-300, commonly known as a Piper Saratoga, the same make and model airplane last flown by John F. Kennedy, Jr., on the fateful evening of July 16. With this background I feel qualified to share my personal opinion about the cause of Mr. Kennedy's accident.

I believe, with what is presently known, that this sad event in our nation's history was fully preventable. Based on the reported findings of the autopsies it was concluded that all three people aboard the ill-fated flight died instantly of gross impact trauma when the plane struck the surface of the ocean at high speed. As was reported, there was no indication of fire, explosion, or carbon monoxide poisoning that would have incapacitated the pilot prior to impact. Also, the autopsy of John Kennedy did not indicate any other physical condition that would have caused him to lose control of the airplane. Therefore, absent any surprising new information indicating that the airplane had suffered a mechanical malfunction in flight, I predict that the National Transportation Safety Board will have no other choice than to conclude that this accident was caused by pilot error and was therefore fully preventable.

The Piper Saratoga and its PA 32 derivatives have been produced since 1966. The airplane is one of the most proven single engine designs ever made. In its' thirty-three years of manufacture the PA 32 has also become known as one of the safest light aircraft in the fleet -- when flown by an experienced pilot. Professional pilots and small airlines use most of the PA 32's in business, air taxi, and sightseeing operations. The plane has either six or seven seats that can easily be removed for cargo hauling.

Mr. Kennedy's airplane was equipped with every creature comfort available and a cockpit full of the latest electronic gear including an autopilot. It was the flying equivalent of a Chevrolet Suburban luxury SUV.

During training of new pilots, flight instructors require their students to demonstrate what is known as "Recovery from Unusual Attitudes." At a high enough altitude for safety, usually above 5,000 feet, the maneuver is set up by the instructor placing a device known as a "hood" over the head of the student thereby limiting vision to only the instrument panel of the airplane. Then the student is told to shut his eyes while the instructor takes control and places the airplane in the beginning stages of what is known as a "Graveyard Spiral."

Just before entering the spiral, the instructor maneuvers the airplane abruptly for a minute or so to confuse the student. The plane is turned left and right and pulled and pushed into steep climbs and dives. This causes the student who has his eyes shut to become dizzy and disorientated and experience what is commonly known as "Spatial Disorientation." This maneuver simulates what could happen to a pilot on a dark night while flying over the ocean with no visible horizon.

After the disorienting maneuvers, the instructor immediately places the airplane into an extreme climb or dive while it is steeply banked in a turn. While the airplane is at its' most unusual attitude with the resulting G forces, the instructor tells the student to open his eyes, look only at the instruments, and retake control of the airplane. The student is expected to ignore his dizziness, focus on the instruments, and immediately right the plane by stopping the turn and leveling out -- all without looking out the windows.

According to FAA regulations, this exercise is to be completed satisfactorily by every student before being recommended for licensing as a Private Pilot. If the student is unable to take control of the airplane and regain straight and level flight from the instructor-induced spiral, the lesson is repeated again and again until the student demonstrates competency. If the student fails to demonstrate that he can regain control of the airplane solely by looking at the instruments, he is deemed not qualified to become a licensed Private Pilot.

To insure that the student pilot has knowledge of the procedures used to recover from graveyard spirals he is again required to demonstrate a recovery during his FAA flight test. With Recovery from Unusual Attitudes demonstrated along with knowledge of a number of additional maneuvers, the FAA Examiner will issue the Private Pilot's license and the pilot can begin to fly unpaying passengers. Unless it is discovered otherwise, JFK, Jr., completed such training and had been judged competent to have recognized and recovered from the suspected graveyard spiral that probably occurred on July 16.

Usually when a single engine airplane flies over large bodies of water the pilot plans the flight to be at an altitude that keeps him within gliding distance of land at all times. This would have meant that JFK, Jr., should have elected to fly at an altitude of at least 8,000 feet while still 10 miles offshore so that in the event of an engine failure, the plane could glide on to the airport.

Kennedy's plane was reported at 2,500 feet while still 10 miles off shore. This indicated that the airplane was at an unsafe altitude for a single engine airplane to be flying over the ocean.

The airplane should have remained high until the pilot had the airport in sight and knew that he could glide without power to the runway. Also, in most instances, at 8,000 feet the pilot is above the haze layer and has better visibility.

Radar indicated that Kennedy's plane unexplainably climbed from 2,500 to 2,800 feet just before crashing into the ocean. In the case of spatial disorientation a pilot falsely relies on his kinetic senses, not the instruments. Often the balance center in the inner ear will give a pilot completely false information such as the airplane is going down when it is actually climbing. When this happens it is advantageous that the plane be at a high altitude, not 2,500 feet, so that the pilot can recognize the problem and take proper action, action as simple as turning on the autopilot or looking at the artificial horizon instrument and responding to the information it provides about the plane's unusual attitude or condition.

The unexpected 300 foot climb of the Kennedy plane before the dive may have indicated that the pilot was experiencing vertigo and incorrectly thought the plane was in a dive when it was actually flying straight and level. This is a common reaction when there is no visible horizon. He probably pulled back on the wheel to stop a perceived dive and therefore climbed abruptly for a short distance. At the top of the steep climb the airplane probably lost airspeed and began to fall nose first. When this happens, an inexperienced pilot may incorrectly pull back even harder on the control wheel thinking that it will cause the plane to level out, but this is the classic cause of the dreaded graveyard spiral. The spiral will continue until the pilot reduces power and pushes the control wheel forward to stop the spiral and pull out of the dive. However, pushing the control forward at such a time is in conflict with what the pilot's balance center is signaling. Nonetheless, this recovery technique takes ample altitude, which was not available at 2,500 feet.

As the spiral continues, many pilots realize that they are going down instead of up and think that by pulling back even harder on the control wheel the dive will stop. This improper action causes the airplane to dive even steeper. All airplanes from the smallest to the largest will behave the same under these pilot-induced circumstances.

To teach a lesson from this unfortunate experience, it could be asked what should Mr. Kennedy have done at the first sign of trouble? He should have immediately focused his vision on his instruments, as he probably had been taught. He could have also taken his hands and feet off of the controls and turned on his autopilot. Either way the airplane should have regained straight and level flight. After control was regained, a pilot should get on the radio and confess his situation to Air Traffic Control. There are skilled personnel available at all times who are qualified to "talk down" an inexperienced pilot. Too often however, there is not enough altitude or time to stop the beginning of the spiral before impact occurs, as may have been the case on July 16.

It will take an estimated six months for the NTSB to release their findings. In the meantime I'm sure that flight instructors all over the world will now take extra time to teach Recovery from Unusual Attitudes, and Safe Over Water Flying Altitudes to their Student Pilots.

Steve Miller is a former Las Vegas City Councilman and writes a weekly column in the Las Vegas Tribune. Visit his website at: