A Lot of Questions; a Long Time for Answers

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Engine failure? Pilot error? Mechanical malfunction? Americans desperate to know what transpired in the last minutes of the life of one of their favorite sons may have to wait nine months for an answer — if there is one at all. National Transportation Safety Board officials warned Monday that even once the wreckage of John Kennedy Jr.’s plane is recovered from the ocean off Martha’s Vineyard, it will take months of meticulous investigation before they present a report on the crash — and that that report may be inconclusive. But for many aviation experts, the probable cause is obvious: "It was just plain, damn bad judgment," says TIME aviation correspondent Jerry Hannifin.

"Anyone who has flown regularly on the East Coast in summer knows that the horizon can disappear completely in the haze," adds Hannifin, "and visual flight rules are that when that happens you have to turn back. The poor guy wasn’t rated for an instrument flight, and when the weather got beyond his capability and he could no longer see the horizon or the shoreline, it was his command responsibility to turn back." The Coast Guard Monday shifted its emphasis from the search for survivors on the ocean’s surface to the search for the aircraft’s wreckage on the ocean floor. Sonar-equipped vessels and divers had no luck by early afternoon, as much of the Kennedy family gathered in their Hyannis Port compound passed their grim vigil with another prayer mass. And America prayed with them.

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