Heart over Mind: The Death of JFK, Jr.
I am an airline captain for a major carrier, I was deluged by friends with
questions from the moment John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s airplane disappeared last
“Why on earth was he allowed to take off into weather he wasn’t
trained to handle? Why didn’t the government do
something? Why wasn’t he stopped? How could anybody with his lack of
experience be given permission to take off on such a night? How can we make sure
this won’t happen again? Why can’t the FAA create and enforce laws that are
strong enough to stop this kind of thing?”
When the waves closed over the watery graves of Kennedy, his wife, and
sister-in-law, calls began to arise for greater regulation of private pilots.
But there were already plenty of regulations on the books to cover every facet
of Kennedy’s last flight. As I asked my friends, how would the government
restrain anybody from getting in their cars and driving off a cliff? How does
one regulate common sense? And more to the point, what are the hazards of
granting government the power to attempt such regulation of horse sense?
We live in an era when most people assume that every new problem is
properly open to solution by government regulators. Implicit is the belief that
the regulators have enough power, information, and wisdom to meet any new
Young Kennedy’s pitiful death illustrates some of the issues that arise
from the question of government regulation and the hugely vexing and
misunderstood question of the major political tension of our age: the questions
of the political primacy of the individual versus the state, and the very
purpose of government.
As you read on, ask what sense you can make of the moral philosophy and
political policy that are invoked by those who in the wake of young Kennedy’s
crash are now calling for more government regulation. Also consider a life
metaphor that was suggested to me by my career as a commercial pilot.
Why Did Kennedy Crash?
In the last few minutes before Kennedy’s little single-engine airplane
went into the heavy seas off Martha’s Vineyard, its radar track showed all the
evidence of a mind wobbling in the tortured confusion called vertigo. This
confusion steered Kennedy down a horrifying spiral to his death on that hot and
hazy night in July. If you’ve ever felt the searing pain of belly-flopping off
a diving board, you might rightly suspect that hitting the water at high speed
is an impact not much different from colliding with a granite cliff.
The kind of bafflement and panic that killed Kennedy arises in a mind as
it struggles with the contradictory signals of its inner ear and its rational
faculty. Reason and emotion are at war. The inner ear evolved over millennia to
measure one’s movement in relation to the fixed sensation of gravity. Gravity
always acts as a vector pointing straight down to the center of the earth. The
inner ear is equipped with tubes of liquid that shift in response to any
movement while the mind compares these signals against this fixed sensation of
gravity. This balancing apparatus signals the pilot’s mind and says, “You
are strapped into a seat that is now as level as if you were sitting squarely at
your kitchen table.”
By contrast, at the same moment he was feeling perfectly right-side-up,
the aircraft instruments, when correctly interpreted, conveyed the message,
“Your wings are tilted steeply to the right of level, the nose of this
airplane is pointing way down, and your airspeed is already howling past the red
The airplane’s flight path creates forces that befuddle one’s
awareness of earth’s gravity. To judge by the sensations in the seat of your
pants, you literally can’t tell up from down, left from right. You are as
helpless to move out of the airplane’s acceleration field as you would be if
you were pinned to the side of a spinning circus centrifuge when the floor drops
And here is the crux of the matter: the pilot’s emotions drowned out
the flight instruments’ story about banking and diving at high speed, and
screamed out, “No way! It can’t be! I’m actually flying straight and
level! I know it! I feel it’s
What Is Essential to Seeing Rightly?
Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a famous French pilot of the golden age of
aviation and a renowned author. “It is only with the heart that one can see
rightly, for what is essential is invisible to the eye,” says the fox to his
eponymous little prince, in Saint-Exupery’s most famous book.
I take Saint-Exupery’s sentiment about the heart’s efficacy to mean
that emotion is the proper tool for grasping what is essential about life. We
feel what is right. We know life’s truths through the prodding of our heart.
This notion has ancient roots that go back at least as far as Plato’s
formulation of “anamneses.” Anamnesis is the doctrine that our knowledge is
rooted in a perfect realm beyond mere experience, which we can discover through
some mystical process of feeling. Such notions of knowledge are widely held in
our culture to this day. Moreover, there are legions of people who hold reason
itself to be a coarse and unsophisticated faculty that does not grasp reality so
much as it invents an idiosyncratic fantasy, peculiar to each individual,
conditioned by the irresistible forces of race, gender, and class, stemming from
the accident of a person’s birth. Millions of people reject reason as a proper
tool for making sense of the important problems of life.
I find it ironic that a seasoned aviator like Saint-Exupery would hold
this mystical prodding of the heart as a proper guide to knowledge. Let’s
consider what this would mean in the cockpit of an airplane and then look again
at the known facts surrounding John Kennedy’s crash.
I was a flight instructor for many years. My students were mostly
beginners and private pilots seeking an instrument rating, so I know something
about teaching a neophyte how to pilot an airplane in bad weather, solely by
reference to the flight instruments.
It’s not so hard to keep an airplane straight and level when you first
fly into “the soup.” You can fly along happily enough without any view of
the world outside the cockpit by using the various gyroscopically stabilized
instruments. The whole array of instruments provide accurate indications of the
airplane’s pitch, roll, and yaw—the measures of motion around the three axes
The tricky part of flying on instruments is what happens after inevitable
moments of distraction. You’re flying along happily when the air-traffic
controller tells you to switch radio frequencies so you can talk to another
controller before you fly out of radio reception range. You reach down to fiddle
with the knobs, and when you look back up at your six basic flight instruments,
from which you extract and integrate all the information you need to keep the
airplane right-side-up, you think, “Hey, what’s going on here?” You
didn’t feel the airplane bank, and you feel a sudden moment’s confusion when
you see a frighteningly different picture from what you expected to see.
So the real skill of instrument flying consists of the ability to regain
control of the airplane when it inevitably veers off in alarming directions.
Instructors call this lifesaving skill “recovery from unusual attitudes,”
and the mindful instructor always gives even beginners big doses of it.
Recovering from unusual attitudes consists of one essential belief: your
feelings cannot be trusted as the final authority on what the airplane is doing.
Your mind is boss. The instruments are your window on reality, and you
desperately need to understand the data they provide. The only power that can
grasp and integrate this evidence correctly is reason, which evaluates
experience by logic.
But what happens when an instrument fails? The truth exists in a context,
not as a commandment carved in stone from some authority. If, for example, the
artificial horizon indicates that you’re flying with the nose well above the
horizon, and at the same time the airspeed indicator reveals a high speed with
the engine at idle, and the altimeter and vertical-speed indicators reveal a
dive, then the artificial horizon is clearly broken. Reality is contextually
absolute. The pilot’s task, no less than everyone else’s, is to grasp
reality, not to invent it, and we do this by applying reason to the evidence of
Some years ago, a visitor freshly back from the halls of Congress
reported a rash of lapel buttons proclaiming that “Reality is negotiable!” I
don’t doubt that in the world of Congress, where creative accounting and
deception are fine arts honed to a bright shimmer, “reality” may appear to
be as malleable under the legislators’ hands as clay in the sculptor’s. But
to a pilot asking whether he can get away with cheating the reality of poor or
rusty skills in the face of overwhelming weather conditions, reality should be
as evidently threatening as if one were contemplating a leap off the Empire
State Building, and wondering if flapping one’s arms could allow a gentle
touchdown on 34th Street.
I take this relationship between instruments and mind as a metaphor for
the wider question of the relationship between reality, broadly understood, the
human faculty of reason, and the senses and emotions that also inform the mind.
Reality is not relative, as the cultural relativists would have you believe when
they tell you that your mind creates your reality. Reality is “out there”
(notwithstanding introspection, which is merely thinking about one’s
experience). The uniquely human problem is how to grasp it correctly.
For the pilot, the mind must rule.
Feelings, according to cognitive psychology, are automatic, somatic
manifestations of our underlying beliefs. (See the work of Aaron T. Beck, Martin
E. P. Seligman, Albert Ellis, and especially Nathaniel Branden.) For example, on
the instrument panel the artificial horizon shows a picture of an upside-down
airplane. If you think you should be flying along straight and level, this sight
will arouse fear and confusion. If you are doing aerobatics, rolling the
airplane through 360 degrees of bank, this sight will arouse joy and a sense of
control. These beliefs operate as the source of our emotions whether they are
conscious or not, whether examined in the light of reason or merely breathed in
and acted on without a thought.
Our feelings, indulged without examination, will kill us. Feelings,
intuition, and emotions are inputs that should be fully heard, but they must
never govern our behavior. For those of us whose goal is happiness, it is only
with the mind that we can see rightly, for what is essential is invisible to the
In the mud-wrestling contest between the rational faculty and the
feelings flooding the mind, the fully trained pilot learns to trust reason and
to fight any contradictory emotional and sensory signals with all the power of
his love of life, because it is only the power of reason that will save him from
Following your heart will kill you, as it killed young Kennedy, and thousands of other pilots over the years who have failed to recover from a graveyard spiral.
Eric Nolte is an airline pilot, a writer, and a classically trained pianist and composer of contemporary concert music. E-mail him at ericnolte@compuserve. com.
Reprinted by permission, from the February, 2000 edition of IDEAS ON LIBERTY. For a free copy of IDEAS ON LIBERTY, contact the Foundation for Economic Education at http://www.fee.org
A great way to introduce friends and relatives to the wonders of freedom!
Questions about FEE? Contact MARY ANN MURPHY: firstname.lastname@example.org.