Do you remember John F. Kennedy, Jr., dying in an airplane crash a few years ago? I confess, I didn't know much about the guy. About the last thing I remember, little John-John was at his father's funeral in 1963:
Then I remember seeing him on the cover of People Mag:
But that's about it. The next thing I know, the TV's breaking in with news that his plane's missing and he's presumed dead, which, sadly, turned out to be true. In brief, he was flying with his wife and her sister to the Kennedy house in Massachusetts. He was flying a Piper Saratoga; a 6-seat high-performance airplane. He was flying at night, in hazy conditions, over water, and without an instrument rating.
Without ground lights or a horizon to act as reference points, inexperienced pilots can suffer from 'spatial disorientation.' Basically, your inner ear is telling you the plane is turning when it's not. Obviously very dangerous. That's one of the things you learn for your instrument rating; to trust the gauges, not your own senses.
Furthermore, spatial disorientation has varying degrees. Being slightly disoriented from something else, such as waking from sleep, will lead to even greater spatial disorientation.
Oddly, in all the articles and TV shows I saw afterward, no one mentioned what really might have happened that dark and fateful night, and who, ultimately, was to blame.
And yet what happened seemed so obvious to me at the time.
If you saw TV cartoons at a very young age, there were certain things you learned that are just so permanently ingrained that it feels like they're 'natural', even 'primordial'. A great example are rats. Viewed objectively, they're just small, furry animals, no different than any other small furry animal.
But throw societal conventions into the mix and suddenly they're vermin and you're encouraged to kill them on sight. Then there's Bubonic Plague, which cats and dogs were just as guilty of spreading (because it came from the fleas they all carried), yet it's the rats who have gone down in history as the perpetrators. And then there's "You dirty rat", "rat on your friends", "This place is a real rat's nest", etc, etc. And, if you're watching a cartoon at age three and it's a 'serious' cartoon — not a silly Tom & Jerry cartoon — and the hero is a brave little mouse, the villain is guaranteed to be a vile, evil, venom-dripping rat.
So if you feel rats are "ugly" or "vicious" or "horrid" or "evil", you're not to be blamed. You're simply a victim of cultural conditioning, as are we all. You, me…
and little John-John.
Those early Disney cartoons also taught us a few things about driving cars. How about coming to a sudden stop?
Quick: What two things do you do to stop a car as fast as you can?
You push down with your feet and pull back on the steering wheel. Picture some little cartoon guy in a cartoon car hitting the brakes. See him pushing down with his feet while leaning back and pulling hard on the rubbery steering wheel?
And it's still being taught that way. From "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", here are Roger and Eddie fleeing the weasels in the cartoonish Benny The Cab. Note the position of the steering wheel:
Look out! Hit the brakes! There's a car just ahead!
See the steering wheel?
Okay, get back to driving!
Look out! Hit the brakes! There's a bus just ahead!
See the steering wheel? And what does a 3-year-old learn from this?
When you have to stop suddenly, push down with your feet and pull back on the wheel.
Now let's put you behind the wheel of a Piper Saratoga high performance airplane flying at night over water in haze. It's been a long day. You're still recovering from the ankle injury you sustained last week and you just had the cast removed this morning. You're on pain medication. You had less than 6 hours of sleep last night.
The two ladies are in the back. They might be chatting, but you couldn't hear them even if they were. The loud engine drones on and on, the vibrations relaxing all of your muscles like a gentle massage. There is nothing to hold your attention, just blackness outside.
Your eyelids droop.
Now, when that happens in a car, something usually wakes you up before you're too far gone. The tires either start hitting those lane reflectors or running off the edge of the road.
Not so in an airplane.
A number of seconds pass and you fall further asleep. The plane starts to go into a shallow dive. It picks up speed. One of the women yells your name.
Startled, you awake to find yourself in a dive! Quick! You've got to slow down!
And what do you do?
In your sleepy state, you rely upon your early 'primal' training, learned in a high chair at the age of three, and you yank back hard on the wheel — which is only the worst thing you could have done. Already slightly disoriented from sleep, the spatial disorientation is magnified and you probably think the plane is in a turn, so you also yank the wheel over to one side — only the second-worst thing you could have done — and the plane goes into what's commonly referred to as a 'death spiral'. Which is exactly what happened according to the NTSB's review of the radar track from a nearby airport the next day.
Only an experienced pilot can break out of a death spiral even in the best of conditions, and, at night, with no outside lights or horizon line for reference, only someone with an instrument rating would even have a chance.
Without that involuntary 'natural reaction' to pull back on the wheel when you've got to stop quickly; that false 'ingrained sense' born from watching cartoons at an early age, little John-John, his wife and her sister, would most likely be alive today. All he had to do was not yank back on the wheel and they all would have lived. There was plenty of room to pull out of a shallow dive.
Who killed JFK, Jr.?
Walt Disney killed JFK, Jr.