I read up a little more about the infamous and tragic incident. JFK Jr. had over 300 hours logged, and about 36 in the Saratoga, half of which was solo. It's not like he was a newly minted VFR pilot and supposedly his CFI thought he was an "excellent" pilot.

However, there was very little information on how far along he was in his instrument training. Did he just get the minimum requisite time under the hood? Did he begin pursuing IR training?

  • $\begingroup$ The kind of IMC conditions he encountered could be the worst trap possible. He encountered "greyout" in haze where you lose your horizon reference but you're not actually in cloud so you don't have the sense that you're in real IMC, and you may not make the mental gear change required to go from looking outside to looking inside, at least not right away, and this can lead to the initial meandering off course that starts to get the vertigo effects working, building up slowly to the world tumbling all around you. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ A little over 300 hours in almost 12 years is not a lot of hours. The principle of disuse will set in. And, very little, flight time was done in actual IMC. If this was his first time in actual IMC as PIC, being single pilot is a recipe for disaster even if he had completed his IR. Which he hadn’t. Then, there has to be a reason why he had such inconsistency in who he received training from. What was consistent is his CFIs opinions on his ability to handle task saturation. $\endgroup$
    – Dean F.
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ @DeanF. He had about 260 hours in less than 2 years, which is a lot for a PPL. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 15:21

2 Answers 2


From the NTSB accident report:

Pilot Training

On October 4, 1982, the pilot started receiving flight instruction. Over the next 6 years, he flew with six different CFIs. During this period, the pilot logged 47 hours, consisting of 46 hours of dual instruction and 1 hour without a CFI on board. The pilot made no entries in his logbook from September 1988 to December 1997.

In December 1997, the pilot enrolled in a training program at Flight Safety International (FSI), Vero Beach, Florida, to obtain his private pilot certificate. Between December 1997 and April 1998, the pilot flew about 53 hours, of which 43 were flown with a CFI on board. The CFI who prepared the pilot for his private pilot checkride stated that the pilot had "very good" flying skills for his level of experience.

On April 22, 1998, the pilot passed his private pilot flight test. The designated pilot examiner who administered the checkride stated that as part of the flight test, the pilot conducted two unusual attitude recoveries. The pilot examiner stated that in both cases, the pilot recovered the airplane while wearing a hood and referencing the airplane's flight instruments. After receiving his private pilot certificate, the pilot flew solo in his Cessna 182 and received instruction in it by CFIs local to New Jersey. He also received instruction at Million Air, a flight school in New Jersey, and flew their airplanes. During calendar year 1998, the pilot flew approximately 179 hours, including about 65 hours without a CFI on board. On March 12, 1999, the pilot completed the FAA's written airplane instrument examination and received a score of 78 percent.

On April 5, 1999, the pilot returned to FSI to begin an airplane instrument rating course. During the instrument training, the pilot satisfactorily completed the first 12 of 25 lesson plans. The pilot's primary CFI during the instrument training stated that the pilot's progression was normal and that he grasped all of the basic skills needed to complete the course; however, the CFI did recall the pilot having difficulty completing lesson 11, which was designed to develop a student's knowledge of very high frequency omnidirectional radio range (VOR) and nondirectional beacon operations while working with ATC. It took the pilot four attempts to complete lesson 11 satisfactorily. After two of the attempts, the pilot took a 1-week break. After this break, the pilot repeated lesson 11 two more times. The CFI stated that the pilot's basic instrument flying skills and simulator work were excellent. However, the CFI stated that the pilot had trouble managing multiple tasks while flying, which he felt was normal for the pilot's level of experience.

The pilot attended this training primarily on weekends. During this training, the pilot accumulated 13.3 hours of flight time with a CFI on board. In addition, the pilot logged 16.9 hours of simulator time. The pilot departed from FSI for the last time on April 24, 1999.

The pilot continued to receive flight instruction from CFIs in New Jersey in his newly purchased Piper Saratoga, the accident airplane. One CFI flew with the pilot on three occasions. One of the flights was on June 25, 1999, from CDW to MVY. The CFI stated that the departure, en route, and descent portions of the flight were executed in VMC, but an instrument approach was required into MVY because of a 300-foot overcast ceiling. The CFI requested an instrument flight rules (IFR) clearance and demonstrated a coupled instrument landing system (ILS) approach to runway 24. The CFI stated that the pilot performed the landing, but he had to assist with the rudders because of the pilot's injured ankle. (For additional information about the pilot's ankle injury, see Section, "Medical and Pathological Information.") The CFI stated that the pilot's aeronautical abilities and his ability to handle multiple tasks while flying were average for his level of experience.

A second CFI flew with the pilot between May 1998 and July 1999. This CFI accumulated 39 hours of flight time with the pilot, including 21 hours of night flight and 0.9 hour flown in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The pilot used this CFI for instruction on cross-country flights and as a safety pilot. On July 1, 1999, the CFI flew with the pilot in the accident airplane to MVY. The flight was conducted at night, and IMC prevailed at the airport. The CFI stated that, during the flight, the pilot used and seemed competent with the autopilot. The instructor added that during the flight the pilot was wearing a nonplaster cast on his leg, which required the CFI to taxi the airplane and assist the pilot with the landing.

The CFI stated that the pilot had the ability to fly the airplane without a visible horizon but may have had difficulty performing additional tasks under such conditions. He also stated that the pilot was not ready for an instrument evaluation as of July 1, 1999, and needed additional training. The CFI was not aware of the pilot conducting any flight in the accident airplane without an instructor on board. He also stated that he would not have felt comfortable with the accident pilot conducting night flight operations on a route similar to the one flown on, and in weather conditions similar to those that existed on, the night of the accident. The CFI further stated that he had talked to the pilot on the day of the accident and offered to fly with him on the accident flight. He stated that the accident pilot replied that "he wanted to do it alone."

A third CFI flew with the pilot between May 1998 and July 1999. This CFI accumulated 57 hours of flight time with the pilot, including 17 hours of night flight and 8 hours flown in IMC. The pilot also used this instructor for instruction on cross-country flights and as a safety pilot. This CFI had conducted a "complex airplane" evaluation on the pilot and signed him off in the accident airplane in May 1999. According to the CFI, on one or two occasions, the airplane's autopilot turned to a heading other than the one selected, which required the autopilot to be disengaged and then reengaged. He stated that it seemed as if the autopilot had independently changed from one navigation mode to another. He also stated that he did not feel that the problem was significant because it only happened once or twice.

The CFI had made six or seven flights to MVY with the pilot in the accident airplane. The CFI stated that most of the flights were conducted at night and that, during the flights, the pilot did not have any trouble flying the airplane. The instructor stated that the pilot was methodical about his flight planning and that he was very cautious about his aviation decision-making. The CFI stated that the pilot had the capability to conduct a night flight to MVY as long as a visible horizon existed.

So he had enrolled in a school to earn an IR training, and he had completed 12 of the 25 lesson plans, meaning he was about half way through training. His total experience, as of the log book that was available, was 310 hours, 55 hours at night. He had 36 hours in the accident aircraft (9.4 at night). About 47 of his hours took place between 1982 and 1988, he did not fly between 1988 and 1997. The NTSB report does not contain his total IFR hours.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks very much for this. Two things of interest: JFK Jr. knew how to use the AP yet decided to not even engage the wing leveler, which would've easily provided some offload of multitasking. He also opted to have his wife sit in back with her sister, instead of having her as right seat helper (nav/com radios, etc). Very odd. $\endgroup$
    – saigafreak
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ @saigafreak Not necessarily. It’s possible that he simply wanted to hand fly the airplane that evening. I don’t know if having both Caroline and Lauren seated in the back was JFK Jr’s plan but it’s reasonable to believe they chose that arrangement as it offered them more legroom (you could stretch out in the PA-32’s club seating better that sitting up front) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 19:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @saigafreak Depends on the AP, the KP150 (in JFK Jr's aircraft) did not have a "straight and level" button, so there was no "wing leveler". Also putting a non-pilot trained passenger in charge of radios or maps can increase your workload instead of reduce it. If you want to have a non-pilot passenger help out with radio's, the best time to teach them is on the ground, or in a pinch-hitter course offered by the AOPA. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 20:38

As Ron Beyer’s answer stated, JFK Jr. was roughly halfway through the practical portion of his instrument training. He had completed the knowledge test but was not ready to do the checkride. What happened to him was really getting into an extremely insidious situation which, based on his flying experience, it’s reasonable to believe he could not have foreseen. The flight was supposed to be conducted during day VFR conditions but the departure was delayed for at least two hours as John, Caroline, and Lauren were stuck in terrible traffic in NYC that evening and could not reach Essex Co. airport at the original time they planned. Add to this hazy, marginal weather, external pressures to be at their destination that evening for Rory’s wedding rehearsal in Hyannis, and John not fully recovered from a paraglider accident 5 weeks earlier which broke his ankle, he got lured into something he was totally unprepared for.

The accident is a cautionary tale about flying over dark water at night. And even if John had been a competent instrument rated pilot, he may not have been ready to handle. I’ve always described dark night over water as an eerie experience. You go straight into a black hole with nothing outside the cockpit to tell you which way is up. Combine that with a marine layer forming over the area near Martha’s Vineyard and the additional cockpit tasks of descending and preparation for landing, it’s easy to understand how he became spatially disoriented.


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