The wreckage of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s single-engine aircraft shows no evidence so far that it experienced a fire, in-flight breakup or engine problems before it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean and killed Kennedy and two others July 16, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a statement issued yesterday.
The board also said the weather forecast that Kennedy got from the Internet about two hours before his flight began offered no warning of the haze that hung over his route from New Jersey to Martha's Vineyard. The forecast was for good visual flying conditions with visibility of six to eight miles.
Kennedy's Piper Saratoga was on approach to Martha's Vineyard when it made a series of turns and then fell from the sky at 9:41 p.m., killing Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, 33, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, 34.
The board did not address whether Kennedy, 38, might have become disoriented while flying over the ocean on a nearly moonless night in thick haze. Normally in crash investigations, the board first eliminates mechanical or structural causes before considering pilot error.
The board said that Kennedy had more than 300 hours of flying time, somewhat more than originally reported. However, pilots said that 300 hours would have left Kennedy at an experience level when pilots often become overconfident and are not sufficiently seasoned to recognize dangerous situations.
The board's statement said that about 75 percent of the aircraft had been recovered from the ocean floor by the Navy salvage ship USS Grasp.
Examination of the wreckage "has revealed no evidence of an in-flight breakup or fire, and no indication of pre-impact failure to the airframe," the statement said.
The statement noted that the engine had been examined by manufacturer Textron Lycoming and the propeller had been examined by manufacturer Hartzell Propeller Inc. under the supervision of NTSB investigators. "No evidence was found during the examinations of conditions that would have prevented either the engine or propeller from operating," the statement said. The propeller showed signs of "rotational damage," the board said, indicating that it was turning when it hit the water.
The board said the wreckage also included a small voice-recording device that investigators had hoped might contain some last-minute sounds that could help explain the crash, but it was destroyed upon impact. Small aircraft normally do not have voice recorders, and those that are installed are not crash-protected like airliner recorders.
The board indicated that it will pursue the question of whether Kennedy received proper weather advice. The weather forecast assured pilots of good visual flying conditions, and no special reports warned pilots of any significant meteorological conditions.
"However, pilots who had flown over Long Island Sound that evening reported after the accident that the in-flight visibility over the water was significantly reduced," the statement said. "Interviews with those pilots will continue."
The statement said board investigators will examine the plane's recovered global positioning satellite equipment and radios. Investigators will continue to document Kennedy's flight time and training, complete radar data analysis of the flight and collect weather readings for the time of the flight, the statement said.
Preliminary toxicology test results show that Kennedy was not under the influence of alcohol, drugs or pain medication for his injured foot at the time of his fatal flight, nor had he had a potentially disabling heart attack or stroke, Newsday reported, citing an official familiar with the investigation.
The search and recovery of the plane and bodies cost the Coast Guard more than $525,000, the Associated Press reported. But the Coast Guard said that during the same time it spent more on an unsuccessful search for a man who fell from his boat off Puerto Rico and the rescue of three fishermen off Hawaii.
Recovering the Plane
Seventy-five percent of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane has been recovered, including:
80 percent of the left wing
60 percent of the right wing
Engine and propeller
Cockpit instrument panel
Small, broken voice-recording device
Piper Saratoga II
Engine: Six cylinders, 300 horsepower
Length: 27.9 feet