Today's Papers

No Spin Control

USA Today

, the Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times lead with fresh radar data from JFK Jr.’s last flight, which indicates that his plane lost altitude at a much faster rate than had been thought previously. The New York Times fronts the flight update but goes instead with the completion of the Bill Clinton/Ehud Barak talks in Washington, placing particular emphasis on Clinton’s pledge to encourage Syria’s Hafez Assad to take advantage of Barak’s willingness to hammer out a comprehensive Middle East peace deal.

USAT, the WP, and both Times go high with the new information that just before disappearing, Kennedy’s plane lost 1,400 feet in 14 seconds, a descent rate far faster than his aircraft’s safety specifications. The Post points out that at this speed, the plane could have begun breaking up even before hitting the ocean surface. And the NYT says this could explain why only small pieces of it have been found. The Post and both Times note that although private planes don’t have flight data recorders, the missing plane reportedly had a manual cockpit voice recorder, which, if recovered, could provide some insight into the flight’s last moments.

The LAT is alone in beginning its story by mentioning pilot error as the most likely cause of the crash. High up, it quotes a flight safety consultant as saying that the accident data is of the sort that often indicates the pilot lost control because of disorientation or vertigo. The explanatory value of the coverage varies widely. A nonaviator would be hard-pressed to make sense of the mentions in the WP and LAT of a possible “graveyard spiral.” And the WP discusses a possible “stall” and the Kennedy plane’s “stall speed,” without tarrying to explain, probably leaving the lay reader with the mistaken impression that it’s the engine performance that’s at issue. It’s not–“stall” here refers to a plane’s loss of lift, which can occur while the engine’s working just fine, if the nose is too high or if the angle of bank in a turn is too steep. It seems that the papers could have made good use of a graphic or two here. (Yesterday’s USAT had a good definition of a graveyard spiral–it’s when the pilot, usually relying on his senses instead of his instruments, overcorrects with stick and rudder for a spin–the virtually liftless helical descent that follows a stall–thereby inducing another perhaps even more vicious one in the other direction.) The NYT does best in connecting vertigo with stalling, with its citation of an expert’s account: “[T]he pilot might have begun a normal turn but lost sight of the horizon, then made the turn too tight, banking the plane too far over and losing lift.”

Everybody notes that deteriorating weather limited yesterday’s search. The NYT notes some public questioning of the extensiveness of the recovery effort as well as the Coast Guard’s response that it conducts many such efforts every year. It also reports that President Clinton said the search should continue.

Besides reporting that Clinton will probably contact Syria’s Assad within days, the NYT lead also sees evidence of the re-energized U.S./Israel relationship that Clinton and Barak are presiding over: new promises of increased military assistance to Israel, and the inclusion of Israel on a NASA flight next year.

The fronts at the WP, LAT, and USAT carry word that a 40-year-old drug costing just pennies a day shows promise in new research of being able to save the lives of tens of thousands of sufferers of congestive heart failure, which is when the heart can’t pump blood well. The drug, spironolactone, is currently used to counteract water retention. The results were so good that the experiment was cut off early on the grounds that it would be unethical to continue giving half the 1,600 patients in the sample placebos.

The fronts at the WP and LAT feature Hewlett-Packard’s announcement that its new CEO will be Carleton Fiorina, a Lucent Technologies exec, who thereby becomes the first female head of a company included in the Dow Jones Industrials, and only one of three in the Fortune 500. The Wall Street Journal says she’s the first woman to head one of the nation’s 20 biggest public corporations. The WP subhead suggests transvestitism: “Woman Crosses Gender Barrier to be Hewlett-Packard CEO.”