Yankee Flyer

On the eve of my instrument check ride, I will write about yet another VFR rated pilot flying in marginal weather conditions. With a little luck (and all my hard work since April) tomorrow evening I will no longer be a VFR rated pilot.

Why did (another) Yankee baseball player die in a plane crash? What happened?

There’s a lot of speculation out on the Internet about the accident. The National Traffic and Safety Board (NTSB) is examining the crash and will, in several months, issue a statement of probably cause. Before that, I’ll toss in my two cents.

The very short answer is that Corey Lidle was a pilot without enough experience to be in the situation he found himself, and his instructor didn’t have enough time in that sort of airplane, a serious airplane for traveling, to help him.

Pilots are most dangerous to themselves and others when they have logged between sixty and three hundred fifty hours of flight time. There is a whole book on this subject, but it mostly comes down to having enough confidence to get into situations that you don’t have the wisdom to get out of.

A pilot just starting out (below sixty hours) is very tentative and often doesn’t stray far from their home airport. Once they have the confidence to fly off into new situations, they have not flown enough to be able to make the correct judgment calls when something goes wrong. (The hope is that they don’t kill themselves or anyone else, just scare themselves, and survive long enough to be wise.)

The Cirrus pilot was in a box canyon of restricted airspace. There are three major airports around New York City: JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Airport. The approaching and departing passenger jets at those three huge airports, combined with a lot of helicopter traffic around the island of Manhattan, and the restriction of not being allowed to fly over Manhattan at all, creates very little space left over for the little planes.

The Times had a great interactive graphic for a while which showed that the airspace is restricted so that you cannot climb more than 1,000 feet above the river and you can’t drop lower than 500 feet. That’s a thin slice of sky.

And it was thinner, because the weather was not very good. (In this sense, Corey Lidle joins the largest slice of accident statistics, which is those pilots trained in Visual Flight Rules and who then go flying in marginal weather conditions.) So there were clouds, some probably descending into the flight path of the traffic on the East River causing them to divert here and there, and he had to keep the plane in a five hundred foot slice of airspace.

A radar track of the plane showed that it flew up the East River at 700 feet, and then descended to 500 feet just before the crash.

There is a common radio frequency so that the planes and helicopters can talk to one another. (This is true around any busy airspace which is not under the direct, mandatory control of an air traffic controller. There is a practice area off of Long Beach here in Southern California. It has a common radio frequency as well.) Calls on the frequency would sound like this:

East River Traffic, this is Diamondstar 971RD over the Brooklyn Bridge, northbound at 700 feet. East River Traffic.

It’s an airborne game of Marco Polo. One commentary on the web said that a radar track showed a plane ahead of Lidle’s which might have been slower than his, which disappeared off radar as he flew past. They argued that there was a near-miss and that’s what threw Corey off his game.

So you are playing the game, telling other (usually unseen) aircraft where you are and trying to picture where they are in relation to you by their announcements. And then there’s the dead end, which you are approaching at one hundred thirty miles per hour. That makes it harder.

The airspace for LaGuardia goes right down to the surface of the East River after Roosevelt Island. So either you turn around or you speak to LaGuardia’s tower. A lot of pilots don’t like calling for clearances; I never hesitate.

Without a clearance, he had to make a one hundred eighty degree turn and head back down the river.

There’s no strict rule, but the general guidelines on small planes over the East River is that they head north on the east side of the river and head south on the west (Manhattan) shore. Regulations forbid flying over inhabited areas at less than 1,000 feet, so you stay over the water.

At the point where he made his u-turn, the river is 2,100 feet wide. Legally, he could start the turn from anywhere over the water. If he had a more sophisticated plane (like the Diamondstar) he would have known that there was a fourteen knot wind pushing him toward Manhattan. (A careful weather briefing would have given him the same information.)

I asked on my Diamond pilot website whether I could have made the turn. I can easily do a 45 degree banked turn at 100 knots. That’s what I’ve been doing under the hood during my instrument training, but how tight a turn is that? This is what I learned:

The formula for still-air turning radius is approximately

r = (0.09*V^2)/tan(a) where:

r is Radius in feet
V is speed in knots
a is bank angle in degrees

The tangent of 45 degrees is 1. Corey Lidle’s Cirrus SR20 was last clocked at 112 knots over the river. We have 0.09 multiplied by his speed squared. 0.09 * 112 ^ 2 is 1,129 feet. That’s radius, so to make the u-turn he needed 2,258 feet. Even if he started at the very edge of the river, he would still fly over the edge of Manhattan a little.

But then there’s that wind… That puts him 350 feet further into Manhattan. And the original radius is only if he executes the turn perfectly, which seems unlikely for a recently minted pilot. It’s common for a beginning pilot to lose altitude, which increases your airspeed and makes the radius larger.

If he had crossed the river earlier and done his turn away from Manhattan he would have been fine.

I believe that the airplane, a Cirrus SR20, contributed to the problem. It is not a training aircraft. It is designed to go fast from point to point and handle well at those higher speeds. It is not as forgiving at lower airspeeds as, say, a Cessna 152 or DiamondStar DA40.

Cirrus is fairly new in the aviation business. Their two planes (SR20 and the fancier, more powerful SR22) are the best-selling airplanes in the United States for 2005 and 2006. One of the writers I read regularly on the web, Philip Greenspun, instructs in an SR20 (a newer version), and wrote a blog entry about the crash.

He also wrote, a while back, when reviewing the Cirrus:

For pilots accustomed to learning about an impending stall by feeling reduced airloads on the flight controls, the Cirrus provides much less stall warning. This is due to spring cartridges that continue to resist flight control movement even when the airplane is not moving. In other words, the flight controls feel similar whether you’re flying or stalled.

I test flew the airplane when I was trying to decide what plane to settle on. I was unimpressed. I really wanted to like it. The plane and the company figured in one of my favorite books on the modernization of general aviation. But it was like driving an American car; I just didn’t feel connected to the motion of the plane through the air.

The reputation of the plane in general aviation is that it is a killer of low time pilots. And, it turns out, it is not necessarily low time pilots, but pilots with not enough time in the aircraft. So Terry Stangler, the instructor on board, had thousands of hours, but not enough in that particular plane. Cirrus faces huge insurance premiums because of the accident record of the plane. (Insurance for a 100 hour pilot in a DiamondStar is $3,200 for the year. The same pilot in a Cirrus will cost upward of $13,000 for the same year.)

Another blog author teaches in the Cirrus SR20 quite often and wrote up his impression of the accident rate in the plane.

Back in the summer of 2006 Lidle was interviewed in the NY Times about his flying. (You need a Select membership to get the article from the archives, but it includes him talking about how the plane is safe because of the parachute and the line, “Lidle, acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies on July 30, said his plane was safe.”)

There isn’t one, really. It remains true that you shouldn’t be scared to call air traffic control, they are there to help you. It remains true that you should fly an airplane that is appropriate to your level of experience. Before you do something like fly around a major metropolitan area (with complex air space) you should get very comfortable holding altitude and performing maneuvers like steep turns and stall recovery.

Always plan your flight carefully and get a full weather briefing. While you think you might be saving a few minutes on the ground, it could cost your entire life.

(There has been some horrible reporting about this incident. It even caused the small-plane-hating Chicago mayor to say that we needed new regulations to keep little planes away from big cities. That’s absurd. More lives were lost to traffic accidents and we aren’t suggesting we should keep cars out of big cities (although that would be an interesting experiment for a place like Boston, which has decent mass transit). Reporting about the plane the New York Times (usually pretty good with facts) wrote that the plane had fixed gear “like a stunt plane.” Meaningless.)

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
This entry was posted in Just Words and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.