As the facts surrounding the crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane become clearer, and the speculation on his judgment and alleged recklessness mounts, Americans need not search for meaning in the tragedy but in the symbolic nature of Mr. Kennedy's life.

For the generations of Americans born after his father's assassination, John F. Kennedy Jr. represented a link to a happier time in America, and he was a tangible symbol of hope that the nation would again enjoy the American experience chronicled by the grainy, black-and-white film footage of the era.

Even though I was born six years after his death, President Kennedy inspired me to a life in public service. John F. Kennedy Jr. embodied the hope, shared by members of my generation, that a leader like his father would emerge and America would respond. He lived his life well and did a nation of surrogate parents and siblings proud. With his death also expires our not-so-secret desire that John F. Kennedy Jr. would follow in his father's footsteps and become the leader for which our generation has been searching.

DAVID DiMARTINO

Washington

While my heart goes out to the Kennedys, I am shocked at the abuse of power and the taxpayers' purse in the search for John F. Kennedy Jr. He was, after all, a private citizen. Had any other private citizen died in this manner, it would have properly been left to the Coast Guard.

Will the family reimburse the public purse? Will anyone have the courage to ask hard questions about this tragic abuse of power?

BARTOL F. STONE

Oviedo, Fla.

As a pilot, I am saddened by this turn of events -- saddened because John F. Kennedy Jr.'s accident is all too common in the grim statistics of airplane accidents.

Barring any major structural failure, the conditions over the water approaching Martha's Vineyard were all that was necessary for Mr. Kennedy to lose control of his airplane. As a new pilot, he would not have had much experience flying his plane solely by reference to the aircraft instruments.

New pilots are visual pilots. This means that they fly by comparing the aircraft attitude with what they see outside their windshield. He was doing fine as long as he followed the coastline. The Eastern Seaboard is a solid blanket of lights, making it a ready reference with which to fly his plane. However, once he turned toward Martha's Vineyard, he probably found trouble.

Flying over water involves certain risks. You need to be able to see the water itself or have enough visibility to see the horizon. You cannot see the water at night. We know the visibility was not good. For a visual pilot, it would be like trying to fly an airplane with your eyes closed.

Airplanes are not inherently dangerous. Airplanes and their engines have matured to a point where mechanical failures are few and far between. However, pilots are still basically the same. Approximately 75 to 80 percent of all aircraft accidents are pilot-induced. The key to staying out of trouble in the air is to know your limitations. If any doubt enters your mind concerning the continuation of flight, land.

DAVID HEBERLING

Washington

I think the spirit of E. J. Dionne Jr.'s July 20 op-ed column was right on target. But I think there's more to the national grief that is being expressed.

For me, a 28-year-old white male who's been very lucky in life, it's refreshing to see someone who grew up in the shadow of an epic figure in a turbulent era of American history set out on his own path. Not that John F. Kennedy Jr. disowned his family lineage and bumper crop of connections. But it's clear to us all that he wanted to define himself on his own terms, take his own risks, and that is something everyone can respect and admire. I think he created a standard to which we could all aspire and of which his parents would be proud.

I am originally from Massachusetts but have not politically supported the Kennedy family. Indeed, I have had my share of choice words for their actions, political or otherwise. But at the least, I always respected the Kennedy dedication to public service, and most important, to family, which has fostered a respectable figure such as JFK Jr. for us to look up to.

DAVID BUTTERWORTH

Arlington

Recent coverage of the Kennedy plane crash was the latest evidence of the media's fascination with celebrity. The low point came when the networks began holding up covers of People magazine and interviewing television personalities while showing clips of interviews with John F. Kennedy Jr.

Was this really necessary for an entire day? Did we learn anything at all? Was anything actually reported?

The loss is certainly tragic for the Kennedy family, but the impact on the nation is negligible. From the death of Princess Diana to the retirement of Michael Jordan to this incident, there has been in the media a willingness to accept celebrity status as newsworthy and create an "event" rather than make a choice to evaluate, analyze and report.

Despite being on 24 hours a day, today's media have become increasingly lazy, adding little value, analysis or investigation to the information they get fed.

BRAD MUMBRUE

Washington