You've no doubt walked by Lonnstrom Landing countless times, but you likely don't know that Dr. Lonnstrom's greatest contribution to aviation concerns a deadly crash landing at sea
On July 16, 1999, Doug Lonnstrom, Ph.D., professor of quantitative business analysis, and his wife, Cris, flew home from Chatham, Mass. in their Cessna Skyhawk. Lonnstrom, an experienced pilot, noted the persistent mist when they took off. In the air, there was maybe a mile of visibility and at one point Cris suggested they fly by instruments. In the daylight, it was a testy flight to Albany.
Hours after they landed, John F. Kennedy Jr. took off from Fairfield, New Jersey in his Piper Saratoga light aircraft with his wife and sister-in-law on board. Their destination was Martha's Vineyard, not far from where Lonnstrom's trip originated. The next morning, the country woke up to the news that Kennedy never made it to Martha's Vineyard, and the world wondered what could have happened. Lonnstrom already knew.
Captain Jai Godbole recently retired from a 41-year career as a pilot, including the past 25 years flying Boeing 777s on international routes for FedEx. Just before retirement last year, Godbole - who raised his family in Clifton Park - was contacted by Schenectady County Community College. SCCC had an immediate need for someone to teach flight safety as part of their aviation science program. Godbole took the job, and for the first project of the fall semester, his students have been assigned a two-page paper. The 17 students - 14 future pilots, two future air traffic controllers, and one future meteorologist - must a write a two-page analysis of their reading assignment - JFK Jr. 10 Years after the Crash: a Pilot's Perspective, by Dr. Doug Lonnstrom.
"Safety is the number one priority for any airline pilot, especially the captain. My students are expected to write in their report what they learned from Dr. Lonnstrom's book and what they would do differently as pilots if they were in Kennedy's position."
Captain Jai Godbole
Three days after Kennedy's plane disappeared from radar, wreckage was found scattered below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. There were no survivors. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that pilot error was the probable cause of the crash: "Kennedy's failure to maintain control of the airplane during a descent over water at night." Lonnstrom knew that to be true, but through his experience flying in the same conditions on the same day, he knew there was more to the story.
Ten years after the deadly crash, Lonnstrom decided to fly Kennedy's intended flight path, and he re-traced Kennedy's every move. Next, he talked to the person who sold Kennedy the plane, he interviewed friends and acquaintances on Martha's Vineyard, and even contacted the person who fueled Kennedy's plane. Lonnstrom concluded there were 32 mistakes made by Kennedy that contributed to the crash - a much more probing analysis than the NTSB finding.
"Without question, Kennedy's biggest mistake was flying in the first place. They were supposed to leave in daylight, but they were running late and took off in the dark. A flight instructor offered to fly with Kennedy, but he was turned down. Kennedy had autopilot on the plane, but he never engaged it. If different decisions were made, there are lot of ways that plane could have landed safely."
Doug Lonnstrom, Ph.D., author
The book is a fascinating read for anyone remotely interested in aviation. It's also the perfect case study for a flight safety course. The book reports are due next Thursday.
"When I was writing the book, I never considered how it might be used as a textbook. I sold copies all over the world from Europe to Asia, but I'm particularly proud that it's read in class by future pilots. It's a really nice feeling knowing that my book is making a real impact on these students and that my research is helping to save lives."
Doug Lonnstrom, Ph.D., professor of quantitative business analysis
"What Doug did - flying the exact route that Kennedy took and analyzing each significant detail - was really amazing. Airline pilots learn from every accident. If you stop learning, you won't survive. This book is written really well, and for my students, it paints the picture of what exactly happened that night."
Captain Jai Godbole, flight safety instructor, SCCC
Captain Godbole's youngest son, Neil, is a third generation pilot and SCCC graduate. The aviator prodigy started flying for the airlines when he was 19. Now 35, Neil flies for FedEx. Meanwhile, Captain Godbole's twin boys, Jay and Nikhil both graduated from Siena in 2010 and played tennis for the Saints. Jay is a CPA; Nik is a surgeon in the U.S. Army.
"The experience Jay and Nikhil had at Siena was amazing. They both enjoyed a wonderful four years, and Siena prepared them for fantastic careers. Jay and Nikhil also recruited several other students to join them at Siena. I'm very proud of my connection to the college, which is another reason I'm so grateful to use Dr. Lonnstrom's book in my classroom."
Captain Jai Godbole