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Kennedy Crash Shows Public Relations Lessons Learned from TWA Flight 800

by Jeffrey Geibel, APR, CFII

Aviation itself is not inherently dangerous - but to an even greater degree than the sea,
it is terribly unforgiving of the least amount of carelessness, incompacity, or neglect.



In the article - we reference Coast Guard Rear Admiral Larrabee's press conference - you can catch part of it during the first three minutes of the CBS News Special Report that is on YouTube.

June, 2013 - The FAA safety team (FAAST) in Columbia, Missouri held a seminar for pilots titled Loss of Control: A Review of the JFK, Jr. Accident. They prepared a rather well-done video to promote it, which can be viewed on YouTube:

April, 2007 - The FAA had a seminar (which I attended) for general aviation pilots in the Boston area on the JFK Jr crash, with briefings by the accident investigators, photos of the reconstructed wreckage and 3-D computer simulation of the radar hits in the final few minutes of flight. No real surprises - the damage to the airframe was massive - they had seldom seen anything like it. As I recall, it was estimated to have hit the water at 2,600 fpm+(feet-per-minute). One tidbit: The investigators initially couldn't figure out two dents in one of the bent blades from the prop - until they matched it to the engine valve rocker cover bolts. The blade had been completely bent back by the impact.

June, 2003 - A new book "The Kennedy Curse", by Edward Klein, excerpted in the magazine Vanity Fair, indicated that JFK, Jr was taking Ritalin for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). If he were taking this medication at the time of the accident, unless he had specific approval from the FAA, he would have been medically disqualified to act as pilot.

FAA Policy for Medication Usage (excerpt from reference) The Federal Aviation Regulations include no specific references to medication usage. FAR 61.53 prohibits acting as pilot-in-command with a "known medical deficiency…that make the applicant unable to meet the requirements for his current medical certificate. FAR 91.17 addresses drug usage by prohibiting the use of "any drug that affects the persons faculties in any way contrary to safety". ...

All psychotropic drugs, that is, drugs that act on the central nervous system, are considered disqualifying. These medications include stimulants, sedatives, hypnotics, amphetamines, barbiturates, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, and antipsychotics (neuroleptics). Among the drugs classified as stimulants is Ritalin, which is used to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD); however Ritalin has been approved by the FAA in only a small number of cases involving ADD. Lithium carbonate, used to treat certain types of depressive disorders may also be approved after very careful case evaluation. All antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibiting (SSRI) medications, including Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft, are currently disqualifying, regardless of the reason for their usage.


July 12, 2001 - The New York Post is reporting a settlement has been reached between the Kennedys and the Bessettes. The Post reports $15 million dollars will be paid to the survivors of Carolyn and Lauren Bessette, out of the estate of John F. Kennedy, Jr.

NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) Probable Cause finding posted at end of article - Click here to jump to it

Kennedy Crash Shows Public Relations Lessons Learned from TWA Flight 800

As a public relations professional, Boston-area general aviation pilot and flight instructor, I followed the media reporting on the crash of John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s plane with a fair amount of interest. What I saw during the weekend of July 17-18, 1999 showed that valuable lessons had been learned by governmental agencies since the public relations debacle of TWA Flight 800 three years ago. Except, perhaps, by TWA themselves. (See related commentary by Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory - TWA's icy side remains intact on page B1 of the July 20, 1999 issue of the Globe at

I first heard about the accident on Saturday morning, when I received a call from a former flight student of mine who was finishing his Air Force pilot training. Accident analysis has always been an important training tool in aviation, and students and instructors routinely discuss accidents to learn from them. Since this student had received his general aviation training in the Boston area, he was familiar with the general aviation flight environment of Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. Quite coincidentally, I had been doing some routine proficiency flying in the Boston area on Friday morning (the day of the Kennedy accident) and saw first hand the weather that Kennedy was dealing with later that evening.

During the weekend, I monitored the major media available in the Boston area and analyzed their coverage of the accident. Overall, I was impressed by the public relations choreography of the various government agencies, the relative accuracy of the information, and how quickly some media were able to tap into informed commentators. As a pilot, I also noticed some ‘missing parties', and a few clever ‘spins' put on some of the information. What was abundantly clear was that lessons had been learned from the confusion and poor handling of public relations during the TWA Flight 800 accident.

Here's a quick review of the major points of the Kennedy accident media relations that were clearly learned from TWA Flight 800:

Don't Leave a News Vacuum

Almost immediately, the both Air Force and Coast Guard District Command in Boston had spokesperson available. Initially, all they could provide were bare details - the plane is missing, it took off at this time and was due in at this time, etc. As the weekend wore on, more information was added, and in regards to the Coast Guard, the spokesperson was upgraded from a Lieutenant to a Rear Admiral. Rather interestingly, there was no hesitation to say "I don't have the answer to that question." or "You are asking me to speculate and I can't do that," throughout the weekend. The Coast Guard continued to be the most authoritative source of information as the weekend wore on.

The important point here for anyone involved in a crisis is to be out there immediately with whatever you have - don't leave a vacuum. This lesson was learned from the mother of all public relations disasters, which was the 24 hour news vacuum after the 1986 Challenger disaster. NASA destroyed over 20 years of excellent media relations with that information vacuum, by frustrating the media's requirement for information.

Two of the most noticeable players who were absent both from the briefings and any role in providing information were the FAA and Flight Safety International (the flight school that had trained Kennedy for his private pilot's license). This is somewhat unusual, especially for the FAA, since they are normally the agency that provides the media with information on general aviation crashes, and is usually the first to have local district-office investigators on the scene. For Flight Safety International, one can only speculate as to why they chose not to give a press conference (which the aircraft manufacturer did do.) Both of these ‘missing' organizations would have faced some tough questions about Kennedy's training, common operating practices and flight procedures, from which causal inferences could be drawn. The media seemed not to notice their absence.

The FAA weighed in later in the week, when it was revealed that a flight briefer at the Bridgeport Flight Service Station had taken a call from a ramp attendant at the Martha's Vineyard Airport about a half-hour after Kennedy's plane was expected to arrive. The FAA announced it was considering disciplinary action against the briefer. This is somewhat odd, since the published transcript tended to indicate that the ramp attendant's hesitant dialogue sounded like a celebrity chaser, and if he knew enough to call Bridgeport, it would have made more sense for him to call the Martha's Vineyard control tower and ask them. Perhaps the briefer could have suggested that, but they have no idea who is on the other end of the phone. (For example, I was recently flying at Hanscom Field in Bedford, and the President (Air Force One) was due in later that day. Someone called the tower on the radio and asked when the "Big Boss" was due in. As if he expected they would tell him? The tower claimed they didn't know.) Also, a half-hour differential is pretty common. Scheduling is not that tight. In fact, a VFR flight plan that is filed remains valid in the system until two hours after your indicated departure time. If you don't activate (call on the radio after departure and tell the FAA to open the flight plan) in that window, you have to re-file. Many pilots (myself included) add an extra half-hour to the ETE (expected time enroute) on the flight plan to allow for stronger than expected headwinds, air traffic delays, etc. And Kennedy had not even filed a flight plan (so there would be none in the system to check), and the ramp attendant was unsure of the tail (registration) number of the plane. It sounds like the FAA is looking for someone to hang out to dry.

Have a Trained Spokesperson and Stick to the Script

It was very obvious that the spokespersons for the government agencies had been trained in media presentation skills. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Larrabee was especially effective in his briefings. The media responded to that and were relatively polite and well mannered in their questioning. The contrast was especially obvious when the Chairman of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) showed up Sunday for a joint news conference. He proceeded to lecture the media like a grade school principal, in a slightly condescending and belligerent manner, and they returned the favor by being noticeably more unruly. When the Admiral returned to the lectern, they calmed right down. The military has mastered the art of the press briefing, as you might recall from Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Keep it Tight and Stay on Your Turf

One aspect that was very noticeable during the week end was how tightly each agency (the Air Force, the Coast Guard, the NTSB, Massachusetts State Police, etc.) stayed on their turf, and referred out-of-scope questions to the respective agency. It was like being briefed by Sgt. Joe Friday from the old television program ‘Dragnet': "Just the facts, Ma'am." This ‘information discipline' prevents a speculative remark from one group being played off another group. This was one area where the respective government agencies really got in trouble in the TWA crash.

Control the Agenda and Cut it off Once You've Said All That You Have to Say

Every press conference had almost a military-style structure that was gone over as the briefing started, and rigidly adhered to. After the structured briefing and a routine question and answer session, the end of the press conferences were signaled by the ‘two question warning': once the questions started to become redundant, it was announced that two more questions would be taken, and that was it. This allowed the briefers to be responsive, yet stay in control of the briefing. At one point, the Coast Guard Admiral's aide stepped in (possibly by pre-arranged signal) and announced: "There is time for two more questions, then the Admiral has to get on the road." He wouldn't have done that unless he had cleared it with the Admiral in advance.

Don't Answer Hypotheticals or Speculate

Throughout the weekend and into the following week, the briefers rigidly upheld this mantra. They would not vary from simply conveying the factual information. At one point, one of the briefers jumped into a Q&A and cautioned that a recovered "piece of debris" had been magically elevated to a "piece of luggage". He was right at the time, but as it turned out later, it was luggage. On other issues, it could walk like a duck, look like a duck, and sound like a duck, but it was premature to call it a duck. For example, the radar traces showed the final descent of the plane to be 2,600 feet-per-minute. Most general aviation maneuvers are done at vertical speeds (that is climbs and descents) of 500 feet-per-minute, and an aggressive maneuver at 1,000 feet-per-minute. The VSI (vertical speed indicator) is ‘pegged' at 2,000 feet-per-minute. In other words, every general aviation pilot knows that 2,600 feet-per-minute descent is and out-of-control airplane (especially at an initial altitude of 2,500 feet), most likely in a power-on spin. But they would not call it a duck. Not that it mattered - any pilot listening knew what was being described, and the public was reassured that the respective agencies were diligently performing a methodical diagnosis.

My favorite anecdote about the danger of answering hypotheticals is a question that was posed to an Israeli prime minister. He was asked what he would do if he was born a Palestinian. Without thinking, he replied that he would probably be a terrorist. That off-the-cuff remark stirred an outrage, and immediately gave some legitimacy to the Palestinian terrorist movement. I doubt if that result was the prime minister's intention.

Consider the Audience and What They Can Understand

General aviation is pretty technical, and not easily comprehended by the lay person, who gets most of their aviation (mis)information from the entertainment industry. Noticeable in this regard was the CNN commentator, Carl Rochelle, who is both a general aviation pilot and flight instructor. His commentary was both the most accurate and informative of all the media. There was a real effort to avoid terms such a VFR (visual flight regulations) IFR (instrument flight regulations) and a host of other complicated terminology and information that is routine for pilots, but that the public doesn't understand.

This cuts both ways, however, and there were a few efforts at ‘spin' (if you will forgive the pun.) The New Piper Aircraft Company, which manufactured Kennedy's Piper Saratoga, gave a press briefing on Saturday afternoon. They rolled out one of the Saratogas as a backdrop for the briefing. I can't recall ever having a general aviation manufacturer give a press briefing that quickly as a result of an accident. During the briefing, the president referred questions about Kennedy's training and experience to the FAA and Flight Safety International, the neighboring Vero Beach (Florida) facility where he received his private pilot's licence. When asked what the safety record was for the plane, the president responded by saying that there were 7,500 in use worldwide, and that they flew 500,000 hours each year. An interesting statistic, perhaps, but not an answer to the question. That didn't really matter, because the media quoted that over and over again during the weekend. Only the Boston Globe called the NTSB and got the actual crash statistics, which it printed on Sunday. The New Piper Aircraft president was also asked if the airplane was too much to handle for a pilot with Kennedy's limited experience. The president sidestepped the question, and referred the reporter to Flight Safety International, the facility that trained Kennedy. He also replied that the airplane had been in production since the 1960's, and had docile handling characteristics. True to a point, but not necessarily for a 100-hour pilot, which is what Kennedy is reported to have been. The reporter didn't know enough to pose the question of how many 100-hour pilots are routinely flying Saratogas. Probably very few - insurance companies take a dim view of 100-hour pilots messing around with 300 horsepower, retractable landing gear, a variable-pitch prop and a 166 knot (190 mph) cruise speed. A lot has to be done, in proper order, both to fly and land a plane like that. Those events can gang up pretty quickly on an inexperienced pilot.

Another effort at spin, or more appropriately, omission, was a narrative provided by an ‘aviation analyst' on CNN who happened to be a former vice-chairman of the NTSB. She proceeded to describe how the NTSB collects information and analyzes accidents. What I noticed was notably missing was that the agency usually constructs a forensic ‘pilot profile' of the judgement and temperament of the pilot. In fact, the FAA and NTSB have identified six or so personality types that have a high probability of being involved in accidents. These profiles are routinely covered in flight instructor training and pilot safety seminars, but were not mentioned at all in the media coverage of the Kennedy accident.

Skip the Transparently Non-Credible Statements

The most obvious of these was the repeated insistence by the government agencies that this crash was not receiving any special treatment, that all general aviation accidents were treated the same way. This was repeated to the media as late as Wednesday morning, July 21.

Please. How many general aviation accidents start with a briefing from the Pentagon, and have a keen Presidential interest? Any savvy reporter who knew enough to ask for a list of the last dozen or so accidents investigated and the amount of ‘assets' devoted to them would immediately notice that the statement was ‘non-operative', as Ollie North used to say. Even Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker commented on this. Walker drew a comparison to the Lear Jet that disappeared on approach to the Lebanon (New Hampshire) airport on Christmas Eve, 1996, and was not found for nearly three years [see Wikipedia link at end of article]. Coincidentally, it was reported in the Boston Globe on July 21 the search for that plane had resumed after two-and-a-half years, after a high-probability crash site was determined by some Dartmouth College engineering students who studied the accident for a research project. Consider that it only took two days to pinpoint the area of the Kennedy crash, with the full resources of the federal government. What a difference a name makes.

Another more recent disappearance was only a few months ago, and was almost identical to the circumstances of the Kennedy flight. A Boston-area entrepreneur had left Norwood airport in his Piper Arrow without a flight plan, and disappeared. There was the nominal media mentions, some search-and-rescue activities reported in the media (including some mention of radar traces), then it disappeared from sight (no pun intended.) The USS Grasp didn't show up in Cape Cod bay to conduct a search on that one.

Even Admiral Larrabee had to struggle when asked about the ‘special treatment' several days into the search. He paused just a bit too long before answering, and hence indicated the real answer. Not wanting to compromise his integrity, I recall that he said the same "process" was being followed. That's like saying the same "process" is followed in a third-world clinic for open-heart surgery as is followed at Mass General. Perhaps true, but the probability of the outcome due to the quantity and quality of the resources is far different.

The fact of the matter is that the Kennedys receive special treatment, and that it really surprises no one. If they didn't, it would probably be demanded. So why the charade? For the benefit of general aviation pilots? They know better. It is simply an example of a positioning statement that was not thought through, and causes more damage than benefit.

Finally, on July 21, President Clinton acknowledged the obvious, that he had authorized the additional resources for the search and recovery operation.

The media coverage and public relations efforts surrounding the Kennedy crash and resultant search and recover operations (the plane and Kennedy's body had been located as of early Wednesday morning) demonstrate the wide and effective use of what is known as ‘crisis communications' in the public relations profession. The net result is a better informed public, and increased confidence in government agencies and their effectiveness in emergency operations. But what a price that was paid in the causal events.

1996 New Hampshire Learjet crash (from Wikipedia)

This is the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Probable Cause finding for the JFK, Jr Accident

NTSB Identification: NYC99MA178
The docket is stored in the Docket Management System (DMS). Please contact Records Management Division
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, July 16, 1999 in VINEYARD HAVEN, MA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 7/6/2000

Aircraft: Piper PA-32R-301, registration: N9253N
Injuries: 3 Fatal.

The noninstrument-rated pilot obtained weather forecasts for a cross-country flight, which indicated visual flight rules (VFR) conditions with clear skies and visibilities that varied between 4 to 10 miles along his intended route. The pilot then departed on a dark night. According to a performance study of radar data, the airplane proceeded over land at 5,500 feet. About 34 miles west of Martha's Vineyard Airport, while crossing a 30-mile stretch of water to its destination, the airplane began a descent that varied between 400 to 800 feet per minute (fpm). About 7 miles from the approaching shore, the airplane began a right turn. The airplane stopped its descent at 2,200 feet, then climbed back to 2,600 feet and entered a left turn. While in the left turn, the airplane began another descent that reached about 900 fpm. While still in the descent, the airplane entered a right turn. During this turn, the airplane's rate of descent and airspeed increased. The airplane's rate of descent eventually exceeded 4,700 fpm, and the airplane struck the water in a nose-down attitude. Airports along the coast reported visibilities between 5 and 8 miles. Other pilots flying similar routes on the night of the accident reported no visual horizon while flying over the water because of haze. The pilot's estimated total flight experience was about 310 hours, of which 55 hours were at night. The pilot's estimated flight time in the accident airplane was about 36 hours, of which about 9.4 hours were at night. About 3 hours of that time was without a certified flight instructor (CFI) on board, and about 0.8 hour of that was flown at night and included a night landing. In the 15 months before the accident, the pilot had flown either to or from the destination area about 35 times. The pilot flew at least 17 of these flight legs without a CFI on board, of which 5 were at night. Within 100 days before the accident, the pilot had completed about 50 percent of a formal instrument training course. A Federal Aviation Administration Advisory Circular (AC) 61-27C, "Instrument Flying: Coping with Illusions in Flight," states that illusions or false impressions occur when information provided by sensory organs is misinterpreted or inadequate and that many illusions in flight could be caused by complex motions and certain visual scenes encountered under adverse weather conditions and at night. The AC also states that some illusions might lead to spatial disorientation or the inability to determine accurately the attitude or motion of the aircraft in relation to the earth's surface. The AC further states that spatial disorientation, as a result of continued VFR flight into adverse weather conditions, is regularly near the top of the cause/factor list in annual statistics on fatal aircraft accidents. According to AC 60-4A, "Pilot's Spatial Disorientation," tests conducted with qualified instrument pilots indicated that it can take as long as 35 seconds to establish full control by instruments after a loss of visual reference of the earth's surface. AC 60-4A further states that surface references and the natural horizon may become obscured even though visibility may be above VFR minimums and that an inability to perceive the natural horizon or surface references is common during flights over water, at night, in sparsely populated areas, and in low-visibility conditions. Examination of the airframe, systems, avionics, and engine did not reveal any evidence of a preimpact mechanical malfunction.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows: The pilot's failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night, which was a result of spatial disorientation. Factors in the accident were haze, and the dark night.

To access the report =

© 1999, 2017 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

Jeffrey Geibel, APR, CFII is the principal of GEIBEL Marketing and Public relations. He is a general aviation pilot and instrument flight instructor who has amassed over 2,100 pilot in command flight hours and over 1,250 hours as a flight instructor in single-engine aircraft. He holds an additional commercial pilot rating in helicopters.

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