The Cory Lidle case: from tragedy to tragic farce

To say it up front and clearly, the airplane crash last October that killed Cory Lidle, of the New York Yankees, and his flight instructor, Tyler Stanger, was a terrible tragedy. In an instant everything changed not just for these two men but also for their wives and small children. Their families deserve the deepest sympathy. Their children deserve to hear through the years that their fathers were widely admired and well-liked men.

The dentist whose condo the airplane hit has now sued the families (really, the men's estates) for damages. On that I have no opinion. But according to this recent AP report, the families themselves have also sued the airplane's manufacturer, Cirrus Design, for "wrongful death," because of product liability, negligence, and other problems.

I have an opinion on this. It is a farce.

When it comes to criminal cases, we're not supposed to express prejudgment before all the facts are in. And when it comes to airplane crash investigations, we're also supposed to wait until the National Transportation Safety Board has released its final report, which often takes a year or more.

But in this case, a lot of the facts are in. Indeed, the NTSB took the very unusual step of issuing a news update less than a month after the crash. The basics of the situation have not been in dispute by anyone -- not, that is, until the filing of this lawsuit. And unless something comes to light that is entirely at odds with all existing info, the cause of this crash is clear and (as with most crashes) has nothing to do with the airplane. Here is what's known to date:

  • The airplane was flying in one of the trickiest parts of airspace in the entire United States. This is the infamous "box canyon" up the East River, which ends when it runs into La Guardia's air space. At the end of this canyon, pilots must either execute a very tight U-turn --possible, but it requires forethought -- or plow into LaGuardia's space. (Previous discussion of the box canyon question here and here.) Going into LaGuardia's space is not necessarily dangerous, controllers could warn any affected airliners out of the way. But a small plane pilot must either reach controllers on the radio and get a clearance in the few seconds before he crosses the airspace border, which in reality he's not likely to get; or he must exercise his "emergency authority" to enter without a clearance. This would allow him to fly safely and land the plane but would make for trouble with the FAA later on.
    (Soon after the crash New York magazine quoted a New York area flight instructor, Stephen Lind, on this point: "You'd have to crank it around [do a U-turn] pretty good to stay within the river confines and out of La Guardia's airspace...But if it's a choice between busting airspace and losing your license for 60 days, or hitting a building, I'd go for busting the airspace. ")

  • Lidle himself, while reportedly a careful and serious pilot, had had very little flying experience. His instructor, Stanger, was much more experienced -- but mainly on the West Coast, not in and around New York. [NOTE: This has been updated to correct my previous inaccurate statement that Lidle had not yet received his private pilot's certificate. In fact, according to articles in aviation publications, he had passed the private pilot exam on February 9, 2006, and had a total of about 90 hours of flying experience, including 3.9 hours as pilot-in-command of a Cirrus aircraft. To put this in perspective, until about 300 hours of total experience, new pilots are often considered to be in "the killing zone," in which the fatality rate is much, much higher than it becomes later on.]

  • Most aircraft that use this canyon do just the opposite of what Lidle and Stanger were doing. This "VFR corridor" -- an area where planes can travel without needing to contact air traffic controllers -- is mainly used by helicopters or seaplanes that take off from the East Side of Manhattan and fly very low southward. The same aircraft also use it on their return trips. In practice it is mainly a route into and out of the city for these specialized craft, not a touring venue.

  • The NTSB's special update carefully goes through the problems the plane would have had in making a U-turn. It points out that the turning area was barely wide enough to begin with, even if a plane used the river's full width for a turn. This plane started near the middle of the river, reducing the available distance. Then, the plane made its turn with the wind, which vastly widened its turning radius over the ground, rather than into the wind, which would have helped keep the plane over the river.
    (To see why this is so: you're in a plane heading north, with the skyscrapers of Manhattan to your left and LaGuardia's airspace coming up in front of you. There is a strong wind from the right, blowing you toward Manhattan. If the plane had made its turn to the right, against the wind, its turning radius and the wind's effects would have offset each other at least somewhat, minimizing the drift toward Manhattan. Instead, they turned to the left, so that both the turn and the wind were dragging them westward, into the skyline. The NTSB included a chart of the radar sweeps from the Newark, Kennedy, and LaGuardia radars, all showing the same fateful turn to the left.)

  • The NTSB update pointed out one other thing: to get turned around in time -- starting from the middle of the river, and turning with the wind -- the airplane would have had to maintain a 53-degree bank angle throughout the turn. That is quite a steep turn. Every second the pilots delayed in getting to that angle meant that they would have had to bank more steeply afterwards to compensate. For reasons not worth going into now, the more steeply you bank a plane, the greater the risk of "stalling" -- of interrupting the airflow over the wings and just having the plane fall from the sky. This is not a matter of "negligent design" by airplane companies. It's a fundamental fact of aerodynamics, and something you hear about in your very first flying lesson.

  • Atypically for the NTSB, its update was clear enough in its implications that the Washington Post ran its story on the report under the headline: "NTSB: Wind Caused Lidle Plane Crash." Moreover, the airspace rules around New York were at least temporarily changed to restrict this kind of flight in the future. They were not changed to affect anything about the airplane itself.

  • The NTSB interviewed numerous on-ground observers, none of whom seemed to report a problem with the airplane. It also said that initial observation of the propeller and engine indicated that they had been working properly.

  • As if all this weren't enough, the weather wasn't very good that day.

And these are the circumstances in which the people who built the airplane, not those who chose to fly it into that canyon, and to make a turn to the left rather than the right, are supposedly at fault?

In reality, I assume the airplane company will eventually settle the suit rather than face the cost, delay, and uncertainty of extended litigation. Sigh. Because unless some fact appears that so far exists nowhere in any evidence about the flight, this was a simple if tragic case of a series of bad decisions with terrible consequences. As, I have absolutely no doubt, Cory Lidle and Tyler Stanger would say about this case if they were able to speak.

The loss of these men is terrible, and their families deserve boundless sympathy and support. But not a suspension of logic and common sense.