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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

JFK Jr. Search Aggressive, but Standard




WASHINGTON -- The search for the remains of John F. Kennedy Jr. in the waters off Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts was more aggressive and sophisticated than efforts usually launched for average citizens.


But U.S. federal officials said that ? at least in the early days when the focus was on finding survivors from Kennedy's missing plane ? the mission essentially was like thousands of others.


"Until just a couple of days ago ? the rescue and recovery efforts that were undertaken were consistent with what would have been done in any other case," U.S. President Bill Clinton said at a news conference Wednesday. "Because the Coast Guard felt they had the capacity to succeed ? and because of the role of the Kennedy family in our national lives ? I thought it was appropriate to give them a few more days. And if anybody believes that was wrong, the Coast Guard is not at fault, I am."


Once officials switched gears into a salvage effort to recover the bodies of Kennedy, his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister, Lauren Bessette, unusual resources were added. For example, a Navy ship was used to recover the bodies and the wreckage. And science ships belonging to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were used to scan the sea bottom.


Few would quarrel with the special treatment accorded the only son of an assassinated president.


"The initial response was heavy but reasonably normal," said Drew Steketee, a vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which represents private pilots. "I think the public wanted to know what went wrong. It's just the way Americans feel about their country."


But many would be surprised to know the lengths to which federal and state agencies ? as well as volunteers ? go to rescue those who go down in small planes or who capsize in boats.


The federal government spends at least $370 million a year on search and rescue, most of it for Coast Guard operations. That organization alone handles more than 40,000 rescue cases annually, including between 400 and 500 plane crashes.


The other lead agency in the Kennedy case ? the National Transportation Safety Board ? investigated 1,907 accidents involving private planes last year, 361 of them fatal. The NTSB investigates every plane crash and it is not unusual to see the twisted crank shaft of a small propeller plane being analyzed at the board's Washington metallurgy lab alongside the fan blades of an airliner's jet engine.


Volunteers for the Civil Air Patrol ? a federally funded Air Force auxiliary ? fly more than 3,000 missions a year, most of them in search of downed pilots.


None of this includes the considerable expenses of state and local governments and volunteer groups.


The Federal Aviation Administration radar tapes used to determine where the Kennedy plane went down are part of a system for tracking small planes that fail to show up at their destinations.


"There is a tremendous amount of energy for search and rescue, because it is a human response," said Chuck Mills, a program officer with the National Association for Search and Rescue, an educational nonprofit organization in Virginia. "It's not based on who you are."


The technology used in the attempt to locate Kennedy's plane was no different from that used in other missions. A radar taping system allows rescuers to find small planes whose pilots, like Kennedy, fly without filing flight plans.


"You use radar, weather information and intelligence about the people involved and that gets you to the needle in the haystack most of the time," said Jim Bigelow, a retired Civil Aviation Patrol official from California, who helped design the system in the 1970s.


But other things set the Kennedy search apart.


The USS Grasp, the salvage ship carrying deep sea divers, had never before assisted in the recovery of a general aviation aircraft, for example. "This is the first time I know of," Navy spokeswoman Lieutenant Meghan Mariman said.