The The Kennedy Crash: Reconstruction - Plane disappeared on final approach

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The Independent Online
THE DINNER party at the Kennedy family estate in Hyannisport, Cape Cod had broken up several hours earlier, but there was no sign of two members of the clan: John F Kennedy Jnr and his wife, Carolyn Bessette.

The couple had been expected at around 10pm on Friday evening, flying in to join 50 relatives assembled for a family wedding the following day. Business commitments had prevented them from leaving New York to arrive in Hyannisport in time for dinner.

Instead, they set off at 8.38pm, flying out of Essex County Airport in Fairfield, New Jersey, in a Piper Saratoga PA32 that the son of John F Kennedy, the assassinated US president, had bought a few months earlier. It was a hot, sultry evening, and conditions were calm but hazy for the 200-mile trip to Martha's Vineyard, where the couple planned to drop off Carolyn's sister, Lauren, before flying on to Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast of Massachusetts.

The flight to "the Vineyard" - an island four miles off Cape Cod that is a summer playground for America's east coast elite, and where Lauren intended to spend a holiday - should have taken little more than hour. JFK Jnr, a novice pilot who was qualified to fly in clear conditions but had not completed instrument training to fly without visibility, did not submit a flight plan. According to the US aviation authorities, he was not required to do so.

Navigating the six-seater plane by visually following the Atlantic coastline, he remained in routine radio contact with air traffic controllers in the New York area until 9.15pm, checking on weather conditions and other aircraft. The single- engined plane, which has a 1,100-mile range and a top speed of 189mph, was last in contact with aviation authorities on its final approach to Martha's Vineyard at 9.39pm.

At that point, 17 miles south-west of the island, about ten minutes flying time away, and at an estimated height of 1,300ft, the plane disappeared from radar screens. JFK Jnr did not make contact with air traffic controllers at the Martha's Vineyard airport.

As the hours ticked by, members of America's "first family" - preparing to to celebrate the wedding on Saturday evening of Rory Kennedy, daughter of the assassinated attorney- general, Robert Kennedy - grew increasingly anxious. At 2.15am, the alarm was raised by a family friend who telephoned the US Coastguard. At around 3am, the alarm was passed to the Air Force rescue head-quarters in Virginia.

A search operation was launched, dozens of planes, helicopters and boats scouring the sea off Long Island, New York state. But an emergency signal in the area, picked up by the Air Force, proved to have been a false alarm.

As the nation woke up on Saturday morning to news that yet another tragedy had apparently befallen the Kennedy clan, radar records established the plane's last known location and the search area was narrowed to Martha's Vineyard.

In Hyannisport, sombre relatives cancelled Rory Kenn-edy's wedding to Mark Bailey, a New York book editor. Instead, three priests held a mass on the porch of her mother's home, offering prayers "for the safety of the loved ones".

As the search continued throughout the day, US television schedules were abandoned to provide uninterrupted coverage. The discovery of aircraft debris and luggage - including a suitcase belonging to Lauren Bessette - reinforced fears that no one had survived.

Late on Saturday the aerial search was suspended because of unfavourable conditions: an Air National Guard plane and three helicopters equipped with infra-red detectors were grounded. Overnight, two Coastguard cutters and a sonar-equipped ship from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration continued to comb the waters off Martha's Vineyard, but without success.

Soon after first light yesterday the aerial search resumed. A Coastguard Falcon jet took off at 6am to assess weather conditions, and was soon joined by a C-130 Hercules and a helicopter. Efforts were concentrated on 1,200 square miles of ocean near Martha's Vineyard.

An hour earlier, police officers and volunteers had begun scouring a stretch of beach along the south-western edge of the island, using all- terrain vehicles to look for wreckage of the plane that might have washed up overnight, or any signs of its three occupants. The Coastguard said later that no further debris had been found, but that the aeroplane parts recovered on Saturday had been positively identified as coming from the Piper Saratoga. They were given to the Federal Aviation Authority so that an accident investigation could begin.

President Bill Clinton was among those who received briefings yesterday on the progress of the search. But the only member of the Kennedy family to be seen was the would-be bride, Rory, walking the beach with her fiance, apparently deep in thought. At the family compound, her wedding marquee stood empty.