For the second time in a month, I have woken up (in China) to news of a fatal crash of exactly the kind of airplane that I used to own and fly. The plane was the Cirrus SR-20; the previous crash, which killed two prominent and respected Italian businessmen-designers, took place in bad weather over the Rockies; and this latest one, which of course killed Cory Lidle of the Yankees (and many other teams -- I saw him pitch for the A's in Oakland), took place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Such events are terrible and heartbreaking, and the people left behind never get over them. (My mother's father died in a car crash when she was three years old. The remaining 73 years of her life were full and happy and wondrous, but I believe there was never a day in which she did not think about the effects of that accident.) Anyone's first reaction has to be sympathy for all involved.
The second reaction is to wonder what it all means. Some things are obvious about airplane crashes from the start. Some seem obvious, and then change. Others never become clear. Here is what seems knowable, and not, about this crash at the moment -- with updates as known-facts change.
1) Cory Lidle was a brand new pilot.
According to the first wave of reports, his overall flying experience totalled 75 hours. To put that in perspective: the legal minimum for taking the "practical exam" (flight test) for a private-pilot's certificate is 40 hours. Many people take a lot longer than that, especially if they have a day job (like being a professional athlete) that keeps them from paying full attention to the process of learning to fly. I had 80 hours when I took my private-pilot exam, and that training had been stretched out over six months of lessons, usually on weekends away from my job. Full time flight schools, or the military, can get student pilots ready much more quickly than that -- but flying is all those trainees do.
An engrossing and chilling book called The Killing Zone lays out unmistakeable evidence that the first 200 or 300 hours of flying experience constitute a time of extreme danger, as a pilot encounters situations whose full peril he does not recognize. (The analogy would be to ages 16-19 when driving a car.) A pilot who survives that period, like a driver who survives teenaged mistakes, has a longer period of statistically much, much safer activity ahead of him. John F. Kennedy Jr. reportedly had about 300 hours of flying experience at the time of his crash.
(Because people in the flying business would wonder, my standing-to-speak is that of someone past the beginning phase but not in the deeply experienced category. I have 1500 hours of total flight time over the last decade, including 150 hours in "actual" instrument conditions and more than 100 hours of night flight. The first time I took a non-pilot passenger up with me was the day after I got an instrument rating, seven years ago, at 300 hours total time. I flew quite frequently before selling my own SR-20 in July, in preparation for moving to China.)
2) The weather yesterday was bad. It seems not to have been "illegally" bad -- a ceiling so low or visibility so limited that a pilot without an instrument rating, like Lidle, was not supposed to fly. It seems not to have been "dangerously" bad in the way that icing conditions, or thunderstorms, or very high winds can pose a threat to any airplane's operation. But it seems to have been "bad" in the normal sense of the term -- drizzling, low clouds, not an easy day to see where you were going. The danger in these circumstances is that a pilot is so intent on staying below and outside of the ragged clouds that he can get "behind the airplane" and lose a general sense of orientation. Staying out of the clouds is a primal urge, because once inside them you obviously cannot see -- and, as William Langewiesche explained in this memorable article, when you cannot see you simply can't tell up from down.
3) Was Lidle at the controls? Was he alone in the plane? Early reports say that two people were killed in the crash: Lidle, and someone else. Was that other person in the airplane? (Apparently.) Was he or she a passenger? A flight instructor? If Lidle did indeed have a "CFI" along -- a "Certified Flight Instructor," almost always known by those initials rather than the full term -- there will be one set of questions and investigations about how the crash could have occurred. (Presumptively, it is safe for a new pilot to take off in marginal conditions as long as a CFI is alongside. Indeed, it's an important way to gain experience.) Another set will be raised if Lidle was taking a passenger for a ride on that kind of day. For now this is in the realm of the unknowns. Update: see below.