Fallows@Large October 2006

The Cory Lidle Crash: One Fact, Two Explanations

James Fallows ponders what might have gone wrong.
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The Cory Lidle Crash in New York City
Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, who used to own and fly the same kind of plane in which Cory Lidle died, reflects on the meaning of the crash

Was Cory Lidle's Airplane at Fault?
James Fallows suspects not.

The one significant fact to emerge about the Cory Lidle crash is that the other person killed was aboard the airplane with Lidle (rather than in the apartment building or on the ground), and was indeed an experienced flight instructor, or CFI. As mentioned yesterday, the whole effort to understand what went wrong goes in different directions, depending on whether Lidle, a newly minted pilot, was known to have had help in the cockpit. For one thing, the presence of a CFI makes the weather that day seem a less significant factor.

In most small-plane crashes, weather is the heart of the problem. Or to be more precise, the combination of difficult weather (low clouds, fog, icing conditions, thunderstorms, high winds, etc) and the pilot's decision to undertake or continue a flight in those conditions. If a very new pilot with no instrument rating, like Lidle, had been alone in the plane, the drizzle and somewhat low ceilings reported that day might have been distracting enough to have started a chain of bad reactions.

Presumably this would not be so for any experienced flight instructor. The aviation-weather readings, or "METARs," from nearby airports showed the lowest reported ceiling in the vicinity—that is, the bottom of the clouds—at 1500 feet. Lidle's airplane had to stay about 500 feet below that altitude anyway, because of airspace restrictions above the East River. Even if wisps of clouds trailed down, as they often do, and even if conditions over the river were different from those reported by airports even as close as LaGuardia, the presence of a CFI makes it less likely that the crash was because of disorientation in clouds.

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So what did happen? Perhaps we'll never know, since the two people involved will never explain what they did and saw. Throughout much of small-plane history this has been the case: since so few crashes were survivable, there were few first-hand witnesses to describe how the problems developed. Precisely because Cirrus's parachutes have saved so many people who would otherwise have died, a significant new corpus of knowledge has emerged from pilots who could describe how things went wrong—and they lived. (This posting, by a Cirrus pilot, describes the history of parachute "saves" and how the Cirrus has become safer than the norm for small airplanes, after a difficult early period.) Obviously this crash is not in that category. In particular, we may never know the exact dynamics between instructor and student—always complicated, since the instructor wants to leave the student in charge as long as possible, but not too long, in case big a mistake occurs—or who had the controls at the end. (My guess is: the instructor.)

But here are two interim explanations—not of what happened in this crash but of predicaments like this one.

The first is the nightmare of the "box canyon." When I first heard about the accident, my mind skipped over the mention of "Upper East Side" and let me imagine that this had happened along the Hudson River, on the west side of Manhattan. I did so because that is the only route I had flown, and because it is so much easier and more "normal" a route for aircraft going around Manhattan. On the west side the river is relatively wide, and the course is direct. You watch like crazy for other aircraft, and you just keep going up or down the river.

On the east, there's no "through" corridor of the same sort. A few miles up the East River, roughly parallel to 85th Street, LaGuardia's airspace begins. (Technically, the floor of the LaGuardia airspace reaches to the surface at that point, so there is no way to go "under" it, as you can further south on the East River or along the Hudson "flyway.") So if an airplane is operating VFR—under Visual Flight Rules, not talking with controllers and watching out for traffic and obstacles itself—it has to turn around and head south. In an emergency, a pilot could keep on going and plow into LaGuardia's space, or he could make an emergency request to LaGuardia for entry. Each would disrupt normal LaGuardia traffic (though not endanger it, since the controllers would see where everyone was on radar), and each would mean that the pilot later had a lot of explaining to do to the FAA and would probably be punished in some form. But as one of the flying cliches goes, "I'd rather go to an FAA hearing than to my own funeral."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent at The Atlantic. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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