Monday, June 6, 2016

#CollisionWithFame: Jessica Kaplan, June 6, 2003


All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.
William Shakespeare, As You Like It, act II, Scene 7


Jessica Kaplan was nothing less than a creative prodigy. She sold her first screenplay when she was just sixteen, and had her first writing credit at 21. The first story she sold, “The Powers that Be,” was picked up by New Line Cinema in 1995 for $150,000.  It was a decade before it made it to the screen, as “Havoc,” directed by Barbara Kopple and starring Anne Hathaway in the role of the rich poseur who along with her frinds gets involved in the dark side of the Latino “gangsta” culture of Los Angeles.  She had also worked on a film adaptation of the Daniel Handler novel The Basic Eight and had sold a pilot, Telegraph Hill, to CBS. According to Variety, Kaplan and her then-writing partner Jamie Hawkins were developing further projects for television, while Kaplan also pursued poetry and short story development.  Hawkins told Variety that “She just wanted to tackle everything … I'm sure she would have. She was a visionary herself and was always able to inspire her friends.”
            On June 6, 2003, the 24-year-old screenwriter was a passenger on a Beechcraft Bonanza (registry N1856P), flown by her uncle Jeffrey Siegel.  Siegel was flying from Santa Monica to Sun Valley, Idaho, and was giving his niece a lift to Las Vegas.  Two other passengers were flying along to view some property of Siegel’s in Idaho. The flight left Santa Monica at 3:45PM Pacific Daylight Time.  Ten minutes later, the airplane crashed into an apartment house in the Fairfax district of L.A., killing all four persons on the aircraft plus one person in the building.

Siegel called the airport at least twice that morning to inquire after weather conditions along several routes. All indications were cloudy with low cover: “the forecast given the pilot were calling for overcast cloud conditions in the Los Angeles basin with bases from 2,000 to 3,000 feet and tops of 4,000 feet. AIRMET SIERRA update 6, was in effect for IFR conditions and mountain obscuration, and predicted widespread ceilings and visibilities below 1,000 feet, with 3 miles visibilities in mist. Instrument flight rule conditions probably should have prevailed.
Jeffrey Siegel was not instrument rated. According to the NTSB investigation he inquired about flying under the clouds under VFR, and attempting to "get up through it somewhere." According to the flight history, “The pilot inquired if he could legally fly, to which the FSS briefer replied that yes, he was legal to fly, but that the weather conditions were marginal.”
When Siegel checked into the weather along his route again at about 12:45 PM, he was informed that Disneyland was cloudy.  Siegel indicated that he would “try and get out of the basin via Ontario, and he would try and pop up through the ‘broken layers/broken stuff’ in the area.” 
After takeoff, it was a quick ten minutes to the end of the flight.  Witness statements indicate that Siegel and his party entered cloud cover, then exited “in a nose-down attitude spinning towards the ground.” Some witnesses reported “hearing a high-pitch noise coming from the engine” while another said that the engine was "cutting in and out." Another witness, a high school football coach, said he heard an airplane engine “start and stop” and he saw the airplane "moving very fast vertically towards the ground like an arrow.” Yet another said he saw the plane “inverted, rolling into a nose [dive]” and “estimated that it completed at least three 360-degree turns.”
Siegel was an experienced fair-skies pilot.  He had over 1,000 hours in the air, but had put in spare flight time in the three months before the accident (22 hours). The toxicology report indicated ethanol in Siegel’s tissues, but also explained that it might be a “postmortem formation” and not from drinking. Trace amounts of cocaine were found in his liver and kidney. Technical examination of the remains of the plane found “no mechanical anomalies with the engine.”  The final NTSB report did not attribute any artificial substance as part of the probable cause for the accident.
Instead, the probable cause determination of the NTSB was that “during the en route climb-out, the airplane entered the base of an overcast cloud layer, and then descended out of the clouds in a spinning, steep nose down attitude that continued to impact with a 3-story apartment building . . . the pilot's in-flight loss of control due to spatial disorientation, and failure to maintain airspeed, which resulted in a stall/spin. Also causal was the pilot's disregard of the weather information provided and his attempt to continue VFR flight into IMC.”  NTSB also cited a significant factor in the accident which is a recurrent one in so many crashes: “the pilot's self-induced pressure to complete the flight.”
            A desire to hurry and a disregard for caution led to the crash that took Jessica Kaplan.  However, her impact will continue to be felt beyond the two screenplays she produced in her brief career. In her memory, the “Jessica Kaplan Screenwriting Series” is conducted by the American Film Institute's Directing Workshop for Women, in part to continue to impart her enthusiasm and creativity to new generations of creative women film-makers.