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Ten Years Later: A Look Back at the Search for John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s Missing Plane

Lowering a towfish into the water

A NOAA Corps operations officer on NOAA Ship Whiting lowers a side scan sonar towfish into the water during the search for the missing plane.

Ten years ago, a small plane piloted by the son of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in an accident that drew attention from all around the world.  July 16, 1999, is a date remembered by many National Ocean Service scientists and professionals and NOAA Corps Officers, as many were on the scene of the crash, heavily involved with search and recovery efforts.

At the request of the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA dispatched its hydrographic survey ships Rude and Whiting to the scene of the accident off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.  These two ships, which conducted routine sea-floor mapping operations in support of updating NOAA’s national suite of nautical charts, used side scan echo sounding equipment to locate the missing plane.

For several days, the two ships tirelessly searched a large area of the coast for debris while an on-shore team used side scan data to create charts pinpointing potential crash sites.  After three days of surveying, Rude’s side scan sonar detected a suspicious object on the ocean floor.  A temporary buoy was dropped and U.S. Navy divers soon thereafter identified the target as the plane that carried John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife Carolyn, and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette.

Then-NOAA Corps Director Rear Admiral Evelyn J. Fields with Lt. Commander James Verlaque

Then-NOAA Corps Director Rear Admiral Evelyn J. Fields with Lt. Commander James Verlaque, then-Commanding Officer of the NOAA Ship Rude, which found the plane wreckage.

The National Ocean Service is often called upon by federal or state governments, port authorities, or local official to conduct emergency survey operations immediately following a natural disaster or accident.  NOAA vessels, including the Office of Coast Survey’s three-person Navigation Response Teams, have responded to incidents such as Hurricane Katrina and more recently the January 15, 2009, U.S. Airways emergency plane landing on New York City’s Hudson River.

Although the Rude and Whiting have since been decommissioned, NOAA’s mission to chart America’s oceans and coasts—a legacy that has spanned two centuries—is carried out on board three large survey ships, a Chesapeake Bay area research vessel, and six regional Navigation Response Teams.

Aircraft search and recovery ops map

This NOAA chart shows search and recovery operations that took place following the JFK, Jr. plane crash. Nearly 20 square nautical miles were surveyed by NOAA during the search.