The Cory Lidle crash in New York City (updated)

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.

4) Is there something wrong with the airplane -- or this whole kind of airplane? There is little about the crash per se that would lead to this supposition. That is, the airplane apparently was flying fine -- until it flew into a building. And what does it mean that Cirrus SR-20s were involved in these two recent crashes? It is, bitterly, most likely a result of Cirrus's commercial success. When I first got my plane in the fall of 2000, they were so rare that air traffic controllers would think I was saying "Sierra" or "Sikorsky" or "Seaplane" when I checked in with "Cirrus" and my call sign. Now for several years running Cirrus has outsold Cessna in the single-engine market. They are attractive to safety-conscious pilots because they have a parachute for the whole airplane (Lidle had mentioned this in an interview), and they have been attractive to successful people like Lidle because they are much more sytlishly designed than the beaten up spamcans one sees at local airports. Angelina Jolie owns one. So do a number of journalists, including Miles O'Brien of CNN.

5) Is this a national security threat? The prize for least-thought-through initial comment goes to the otherwise estimable James Hall, formerly of the National Transportation Safety Board. According to MSNBC's report:

Former NTSB director Jim Hall said in a telephone interview he doesn't understand how a plane could get so close to a New York City building after Sept. 11.

"We're under a high alert and you would assume that if something like this happened, people would have known about it before it occurred, not after," Hall said.

Puh-leeeze. Controllers are fully aware that at this very instant small airplanes are traveling up and down the "flyways" surrounding Manhattan. I don't have my aviation charts with me any more, but the "Terminal Area Chart" for New York clearly shows routes and altitudes airplanes can take over the water surrounding the city, including for sightseeing trips. Several times I have gone up the Hudson on one of these "VFR Flyways," and it was spectacular, while posing no risk to anyone on the ground. As long as the airplanes follow the published flyway routes, the controllers do not need to talk to them -- and are happy not to, since they are so busy getting airliners arranged for approach to Newark, Kennedy, and LaGuardia. (The "flyways" obviously keep small-plane traffic out of those airliner corridors.) And if a plane veers from the path, as apparently happened here, it would be a matter of a few seconds' flight time from the river to a nearby skyscraper. How, exactly, is anyone supposed to know about this "before it occurred," as Mr. Hall has hoped?

Do these flyways pose an ongoing hazard? Only in the sense that the vastly more numerous, and potentially far more devastating, trucks, busses, and vans pouring into Manhattan every hour do. As this latest crash reminds us, and as one nearly five years ago in Tampa showed, a small plane crash is a deadly threat mainly for the plane's occupants. (In some crashes, of course, people on the ground have been killed by debris.) The New York City flyways pose a more-than-zero danger -- but so does each train that runs through tunnels into the city, and each van that idles on the sidewalk next to a skyscraper, and essentially each other aspect of normal life.

Main reaction, again: this is a tragedy for all involved. It will become more explicable, if not any less painful, as more facts appear.

Update: It now appears that the other casualty in the crash was indeed a CFI aboard the plane: Tyler Stanger, of southern California. And -- a fact I should have realized and emphasized before -- the accident occurred on the far narrower and more problematic eastern flyway around the city, rather than the western flyway over the Hudson River. The Hudson River route is the one I have taken myself; it is scenic and, apart from the abundance of helicopters and other airplanes, not that challenging. The path over the East River constitutes a sort of "box canyon," which ends at the airspace surrounding LaGuardia. Pilots who are flying "VFR" -- under "visual flight rules," and not necessarily in contact with controllers -- would normally have to turn around before they reached LaGuardia's space. These new facts complicate rather than clarify the circumstances of this sad crash.