Vertigo in the Void: Flying Personal Planes Is Safer Than Ever, but Danger Can Strike Instantly

Article excerpt

For pilots, the technical term is "spatial disorientation,'' a kind of vertigo that may have engulfed John F. Kennedy Jr. during his final moments. Wrapped in darkness over the ocean, with thick haze blocking out stars, city lights and what little moonlight there was to mark the horizon, Kennedy likely felt the crippling sensation that leaves pilots clawing for a sense of what is up, down or level. At that moment, little mistakes in the cockpit can compound exponentially, and life-or-death reactions must come in split seconds. Many pilots have felt the sensation at one time or another, and they watched last week's sad drama off Martha's Vineyard with a special kind of emotion. "Every pilot I know is just sick and so upset by what happened,'' says John Emmerling, an advertising executive in New York who flew his private plane to his Cape Cod weekend home just hours before Kennedy departed. "It's like we just got socked in the stomach.''

Kennedy had felt a kinship with other general aviators--private pilots who fly neither commercially nor for the military--and his death put some of them on the defensive. Are small planes like his safe? Is pilot training adequate? Are federal regulations stringent enough? The new doubts came just as the general-aviation industry was looking up. The stock market has generated enough wealth for people to buy planes, and last year, shipments of new aircraft climbed to 2,220, rising from the low of 928 in 1994. And the industry's legal costs are under control, thanks to a 1994 law that protects manufacturers from being sued over accidents involving planes more than 18 years old--a real advantage given that the average single-engine piston aircraft has been flying for more than 25 years.

General aviation's safety record is improving. The number of fatal crashes has declined steadily through the years, from 721 in 1978 to 361 last year. Though fewer people are dying in small planes, the main causes remain stubbornly consistent. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, pilots with lower levels of training who fly into conditions that require instrument-only skills (Kennedy's apparent predicament) cause more accidents than thunderstorms, icing and most other weather hazards combined.

Pilot training is always called into question after a crash, but the falling accident rate suggests that regulators and the industry are doing something right. New pilots typically go through 55 to 75 hours of training before they get their license. They spend roughly three hours of that time with an instructor learning how to fly with only the aid of instruments; typically, the trainees wear an elaborate plastic visor that blocks their vision of everything but the instrument panel. …