Fuselage intact after `graveyard spiral'

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The Independent Online
FIRST THERE was the obstinate optimism, the hope that somehow after their aircraft had crashed into the ocean, John F Kennedy Jnr, his wife and her sister might still be found alive. Then through this week the understanding that they were dead became tinged with a fear - that their bodies would never be retrieved.

But last night, the see-saw of expectations was stilled. Through the day, the news started to leak out. First, we learnt that some wreckage had been found. Then came word that JFK himself had been located. Then at last, the picture was completed: the United States Navy had found the wreckage and all three of the bodies, which were soon to be lifted to the surface. Late last night they were finally brought to shore.

We knew something had happened when a Coast Guard helicopter landed at the Hyannisport Kennedy compound at about noon. Senator Edward Kennedy, accompanied by his two sons, boarded the helicopter to be taken first to Martha's Vineyard, then about 71/2 miles offshore to the navy salvage vessel USS Grasp.

It was on board the Grasp that investigators finally found what they were looking for late on Tuesday night. On monitors carrying video pictures from a submersible vehicle working 100 feet beneath the ship, they saw the outline of a small aircraft.

Until then, it seemed possible that nothing would be found of the Piper or those who had been flying in it. Every day since the crash debris had washed up on nearby beaches - bits of carpet, cabin mouldings, baggage. The aircraft, it was clear, had hit the water last Friday night at great speed.

Only when the divers of the US Navy went down yesterday could investigators be sure of what they had found. The fuselage was battered, its wings and the engine stripped from it. And inside were the bodies of JFK Jnr, near where the cockpit had been, and behind, his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren Bessette.

They could not have lived through the crash. The aircraft had no equipment for survival in water, no life jackets and no life raft. The water, even in summer, is cold. And JFK Jnr had not filed a flight plan - he was not obliged to.

Even so, radar stations all along the coast of southern New England did record images of the aircraft's flight. Those images proved pivotal to yesterday's discoveries. By Tuesday, officials had been able to locate the precise "splash-point" where the Piper hit the water and it was there that the Grasp positioned itself and lowered its submersible.

The same radar data may also help the NSTB finally to determine what went wrong. It bolsters the theory that JFK suffered "spatial disorientation" - that in the dark, he lost all sense of up and down, left and right. It shows that JFK, who was at the controls, executed some unexplained manoeuvres in the last moments of the flight.

After descending normally for a few minutes, he turned to the right when he was 20 miles from the Vineyard airport and began to climb. Moments later, he turned right again. It was then that the aircraft began what some experts have termed a "graveyard spiral" - descending at a catastrophic rate of 5,000 feet a minute.