'The Day John Died' Excerpt

Below is the first chapter of Christopher Andersen’s The Day John Died, published by William Morrow.

Chapter One

He gripped the controls tightly with both hands, trying to keep his tiny aircraft from being overturned by a stiff wind blowing in off the Atlantic. Two years earlier, in 1997, John had been warned by veteran pilots not to take off in blustery weather like this, and he had heeded those warnings. But now he was feeling more confident of his abilities as an aviator—confident enough to take a calculated risk in the skies over Martha’s Vineyard.

In the distance, he could make out the silhouette of Gay Head’s white, gray, and red chalk cliffs standing in sharp relief against the darkening sky. Gliding closer, he had a gull’s-eye view of Red Gate Farm, the 474-acre estate left to him and his sister, Caroline, by their mother, Jacqueline. On one side was Squibnocket Pond, on the other 4,620 feet of private oceanfront. In between was a wonderland of Scotch pines, sand dunes, scrub oaks, and marshes. “It was a dream place, a sunlit place,” Kennedy family friend George Plimpton had once observed. “It’s hard to explain the effect it all had on you—all the variations in color, water sparkling like diamonds everywhere you looked.”

From his vantage point high above it all, John was no less transfixed—until a sudden gust jolted him out of his reverie. He squeezed the controls even more tightly, but another gust pushed him sideways, and yet another seemed to slam down from above like a sledgehammer. He was heading toward open water, and losing altitude rapidly.

The situation would have been dire enough if John had actually been piloting a plane. But on this Memorial Day weekend he had taken to the skies in his $14,300 Buckeye ultralight powered parachute, a flimsy contraption that resembled a small go-cart with an engine-driven propeller at the back. Behind the propeller was a parachute that, once filled with air, acted like a wing, bearing the craft aloft.

“He was a natural for his first time flying,” said Buckeye Industries’ Ralph Howard, who sold John his first ultralight, a $13,000 Falcon 582 powered parachute, and trained him in its use, “John was literally at a loss for words, he was so excited.”

Toward the end of his maiden flight, he pleaded with Howard to stay airborne. “The sunset is so beautiful,” John said. “Can I go around one more time?” Once Howard had taken his student up for a few more runs, he was confident John was ready to solo. There was no need for any formal certification; piloting an ultralight does not require a license.

At first locals “didn’t know what it was,” said Brenda Hayden, who managed the sandwich shop where John often stopped before taking off. “It made this weird noise, like a flying lawn mower. But he really seemed excited about it, because he was always in it.”

Others that afternoon in late May of 1999 were alarmed by the sight of the “flying lawn mower” whisking by high-tension power lines. “Is he that stupid?” said one. “If a gust of wind pushes him in the wrong direction, he’ll get fried.” Nor was he equipped to survive a plunge into the chilly Atlantic. Wearing pants, a shirt, and a cap instead of a wet suit, John would probably not have survived the forty-degree water temperature for long.

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