JFK Jr.'s Final Journey: As the Families Mourn, the Search for Answers Still Goes on. How Poor Timing, Iffy Judgment and Bad Luck Led to Kennedy's Fatal Crash

Newsweek, August 2, 1999 | Go to article overview

JFK Jr.'s Final Journey: As the Families Mourn, the Search for Answers Still Goes on. How Poor Timing, Iffy Judgment and Bad Luck Led to Kennedy's Fatal Crash


Inside the church, the grief was real. Sen. Edward Kennedy's voice caught as he read his lovely eulogy, and when he was done, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg stood up and hugged him. She bravely read from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" ("Our revels now are ended. We are such stuff as dreams are made on"). Many of the 315 mourners, family and friends of the Kennedys and Bessettes, swallowed hard through a gospel choir's rendition of "Amazing Grace," and afterward, they sang lustily as Uncle Teddy led the old Irish songs at the wake.

After the last eulogy was said, the last tear fell and the last camera clicked off, there remained the painful thought of what might have been. John F. Kennedy Jr. "had only just begun," said his uncle, Sen. Edward Kennedy. "There was in him a great promise of things to come."

Outside the church, where the cameras peered and the talking heads spoke in low and mournful tones, the sorrow seemed more contrived. In a celebrity age, without any overarching national crisis, the media (NEWSWEEK included) have established a culture of grief. These spectacles of sorrow--for dead soldiers or victims of crime or terror, for lost celebrities from rock stars to princesses to presidents--do serve a purpose. They offer outlets for grief that cannot be expressed in other ways, they teach small history and civics lessons, they can bring a disparate country together, at least for a moment. But they are slightly unreal. The public tunes in, sheds a tear--then tunes out, until the next episode.

The temptation is to make the facts of JFK Jr.'s demise as epic as the drama of his burial and mourning. But the handsome and amiable son of the 35th president of the United States was not done in by some fatal character flaw or Jovian thunderbolt. A reconstruction of Kennedy's last hours shows that, in all likelihood, no one person or event was to blame for the crash of his plane. Kennedy and his wife and his sister-in-law Lauren were doomed by an accretion of poor timing, iffy judgment and bad luck--possibly including an inaccurate weather forecast.

By all accounts, JFK Jr. was in a buoyant mood when he arrived at work on the morning of Friday, July 16. The bosses at Hachette Filipacchi, publisher of his financially troubled magazine, George, had been complaining to him about declining ads and circulation. But earlier in the week Kennedy, accompanied by an instructor, had flown to Canada, where he had chatted up Keith Stein, the vice president of an auto-parts manufacturer, about pulling together some investors to plow new money into the magazine. More immediately, Kennedy was happy to be walking without a plastic orthopedic device for his left ankle, which he had broken in May. Kennedy told friends that a doctor had cleared him to fly his airplane solo again. He would no longer have to take along an instructor pilot.

Kennedy loved the freedom of flying. More than 20 years ago, a friend, John Perry Barlow, had taken the teenage Kennedy aloft in his Cessna and given him the controls. Kennedy was thrilled. "You mean this is all there is to it?" he asked. "Well," answered Barlow, "there's taking off and landing." Flying, like sailing, appealed to the Kennedys' sense of romance and daring. Watching a jet pass overhead as he sailed off Cape Cod many years ago, President Kennedy dreamily wondered aloud: if he was aboard a plane and the pilot suddenly died, could he fly it, wrestling with the controls? As a little boy JFK Jr. absorbed the legend of his uncle Joe, a Navy aviator who died on a dangerous mission in World War II. The fascination with flying endured: friends recall young Kennedy's memorizing the make and design of different aircraft.

In 1998, after his mother died, JFK Jr. got his pilot's license. He was said by former instructors to be a good pilot with 200 hours' experience. Kennedy was learning how to fly a plane by instruments alone, although he had not yet passed a licensing test. …

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