Lidle lawsuit update: the myth of "aileron failure"

As mentioned earlier, the families of Cory Lidle and Tyler Stanger are suing the Cirrus Design corporation for "wrongful death" in the crash that killed both men last year.

Also as mentioned earlier, those families deserve every bit of empathy and condolence for the lasting consequences of their losses. If you know what it can mean to children to lose a parent this way, you can only wish these families the best.

But in light of extra details about purported grounds for the suit, I have no sympathy at all for the attorneys who, I can only assume, have used the families' grief to talk them into taking this misguided step.

Two online aviation news sources -- Aero-News.Net and AVweb -- have carried updates about the case -- including, on AVweb, this press release from the law firm filing the suit. Or, this alleged press release; the law firm's own site doesn't have it at the moment. Indeed, I hope that this is all an error, press release and lawsuit alike, because at face value the claims therein are embarrassing.

Remember that the evidence to date is 100% consistent with one explanation of this crash: that Lidle and Stanger got to the end of the airspace "box canyon" on the East River and didn't take any of the avenues that might have gotten them out. They didn't fly ahead into LaGuardia's airspace -- which presumably would have let them continue safely but would have led to later trouble from the FAA. They did not attempt a U-turn to the right, into the crosswind pushing them toward Manhattan, which would have minimized their turning radius over the ground and their drift into the city. And they didn't successfully complete their attempted U-turn to the left, which would have been very challenging under the best of circumstances. (The best circumstances would include: familiarity with the area, which neither man had; perfect weather, which they also didn't have; starting the turn on the far bank of the river, which they didn't do; and a slower speed entering the turn than they apparently were going. And of course, no cross wind to blow them over Manhattan.)

None of this is certain, of course -- and what is generally regarded as the conclusive document in such cases, the finding of "probable cause" by the National Transportation Safety Board, has not been released. But everything now known fits this explanation -- as the NTSB emphasized in an unusual news update a few weeks after the crash.

I say all this analytically rather than judgmentally. Anyone who has flown airplanes has made mistakes whose consequences could easily have been more disastrous than they turned out to be. The bromide for this in the flying world is "filling the experience bucket before the luck bucket runs dry." My own worst case of this sort... well, it's still too painful to think about, even though by luck it did no damage at all. With slightly different luck Lidle and Stanger might well have avoided the condos and continued their flight shaken but alive.

So what does the lawsuit say? That the crash was the result of a "catastrophic failure" of the flight control system. Specifically, that the ailerons -- the controls that determine an airplane's bank and therefore are the main way (along with the rudder) that planes turn right or left -- failed in a way that doomed the pilots.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. 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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