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On July 16, 1999, twenty years ago today, John F. Kennedy Jr’s single-engine Piper Saratoga crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, killing John (38), his wife Carolyn (33), and Carolyn’s sister, Lauren (34). All investigations into the cause of the crash point to a phenomenon called “spatial disorientation.”
Spatial disorientation occurs when a pilot flies into darkness or weather conditions that prevent him from being able to see the horizon or the ground. Points of reference that normally guide his senses disappear. His sensory perceptions become unreliable. He no longer knows which way is up or down. The danger of such disorientation is obvious.
Planes - Instruments - Pilots - Plane - Attitude
That’s why most planes are equipped with navigational instruments designed to inform pilots of the plane’s attitude, altitude, and groundspeed. If a pilot enters into dark or cloudy conditions where his natural orientation senses become unreliable, he can “fly by the instruments.”
Learning to place more confidence in a plane’s instruments than one’s own intuitive senses, however, requires training. When our mind senses potential danger, especially mortal danger, and urgently commands, “bank right,” while instruments on a dashboard indicate we should, “bank left,” it is very difficult to trust the instruments. As one expert stated, reflecting on the Kennedy crash, “You have to be well trained to disregard what your brain is saying . . . and fly by the instruments.”
John - Training - Conditions - Ground - Sky
John had not received this training. He was certified to fly in conditions where he could visually distinguish the ground from the sky. However, en route to Martha’s Vineyard he flew into a hazy fog at night, experienced spatial disorientation, and trusted in his perceptions to guide him. Three days later, the Coast Guard located the remains of the plane, and its young passengers, on the floor of the Atlantic.
There is a spiritual parallel....
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