By People Staff
August 01, 1999 12:00 PM

When he was growing up, we called him ‘Helicopter Head,’ ” says John’s uncle James Auchincloss. “His father’s helicopter would land, and John would imitate the propeller, whirl around and fall on the ground.” Flying captivated Kennedy throughout his life. Ultimately, it would also define his death. As a boy, John often clutched a toy plane and quizzed just about every pilot he met. But Jackie was wary of the risks of flying, so it wasn’t until after her death that he pursued his license, earning his wings in 1998. In the cockpit, says his friend John Perry Barlow, “He felt liberated.” Perhaps too much so. Some say inexperience led John toward the July 16 plunge that made the nation gasp, then grieve for him, wife Carolyn and her sister Lauren Bessette, 34. “You always hope it’s not someone you know,” says fellow pilot Ed Gacio, who flew a path similar to Kennedy’s the night John’s plane disappeared. “You think, ‘Why a guy like him?’ ”