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‘Final 24': Was John-John trained enough to fly the plane or did the Kennedy curse kill him?

John F Kennedy's life was cut short when his plane crashed on July 16, 1999, in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. He was 38
John F Kennedy Jr (Getty Images)
John F Kennedy Jr (Getty Images)

The Kennedys have seen a string of tragic deaths in their family. John F Kennedy, the 35th president of America, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald. His son, John F Kennedy Jr was barely three years old then. 

On November 25, 1963, the state funeral of his father was held on his birthday. As the nation reeled in sorrow and shock, John — who was known as John-John or JFK Jr — was captured in an iconic photograph where he gave his father's flag-draped casket a final salute before it was carried out from St. Matthew's Cathedral. Photographer Dan Farrell, who took the photo, called it "the saddest thing I've ever seen in my whole life."

In his early days, his mother Jacqueline Kennedy was worried about her son's safety after her husband's assassination and Robert F Kennedy, John F Kennedy Jr's uncle, was assassinated in 1968. ''If they're killing Kennedys, then my children are targets,'' she said at the time. ''I want to get out of this country.''

John F Kennedy Jr (Getty Images)

Trained as a lawyer, he soon entered the field of magazine publishing after having worked four years as the New York City assistant district attorney. In 1995, he launched George magazine. However, his life was cut short when his plane crashed on July 16, 1999, in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. He was 38. With about 300 hours of flying experience, Kennedy flew from Essex County airport in New Jersey into a hazy, moonless night. When one flight instructor offered to board the plane, he declined, saying, "He wanted to do it alone."

His wife, Carolyn Bessette and sister-in-law, Lauren Bessette also flew with him. The visibility was very poor and he would have to use instruments to fly the plane. Kennedy was not qualified for a license to fly with instruments only. The news came as a huge shock and was mired in many controversies. JFK Jr was reported lost and presumed dead and his demise was labeled as another out-turn of the Kennedy curse. 

At 2.15 am on July 17, the Kennedys reported to the local Coast Guard Air Station that the plane had not arrived and the US Coast Guard began a rescue operation at 4 am and debris was found in the Atlantic Ocean. By July 21 noon, the bodies of Kennedy and the Bessette sisters were recovered and divers said John-John was still strapped in his seat. Coast Guard Admiral Richard M Larrabee said that all three bodies were "near and under" the fuselage. Autopsies revealed that all three had died upon impact. 

John F. Kennedy Jr. and wife, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy (Getty Images)

After his death, the one question that troubled many were: What led to the crash and was Kennedy trained to fly the plane in those weather conditions?  

On that particular day, the weather was officially listed as "visual meteorological conditions" (VMC), which allowed Kennedy to fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) rather than Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). It is said that he first got his private pilot license in 1998 and soon clinched "high-performance airplane" and "complex airplane" endorsements. In the plane that crashed, he was reported to have flown 36 hours, of which about nine hours were at night and almost three hours without a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) on board.

Over a year before the crash, Kennedy had the experience to fly 35 flights either to or from northern New Jersey and the Martha's Vineyard area, of which 17 were without a CFI on board and at least five at night. The CFI who trained Kennedy for his private pilot checkride lauded him for "very good" flying skills for his level of experience.

John F Kennedy Jr (Getty Images)

There were several other factors that led to the crash. Reports say that from 8.49 pm, about 10 minutes after departure, and for a 5 minute period lasting until 8.54 pm, the plane flew in the same vicinity as American Airlines Flight 1484, a Fokker 100. However, there is no information on whether it proved to be a distraction to Kennedy. Moreover, the flight was a little late on schedule as Kennedy's sister-in-law was delayed at work. It departed at 8.39 pm even though the original plan was to fly at 6 pm.

Moreover, Kennedy had fractured his left ankle in a paragliding accident six weeks before the crash. He wore a cast and removed it one day before the fatal flight. 

After the shocking news of death left all American citizens mourning for the loss, president Bill Clinton ordered for the flags at the White House be lowered to half-staff. At the memorial service, his paternal uncle Ted said, "We dared to think, in that other Irish phrase, that this John Kennedy would live to comb gray hair, with his beloved Carolyn by his side. But, like his father, he had every gift but length of years."

After the autopsies, the three bodies were taken from Hyannis to Duxbury, Massachusetts, and cremated in the Mayflower Cemetery crematorium.