Thursday, October 12, 2006

Cory Lidle - Another Wealthy Athlete Dies Senselessly

Last night as I watched ESPN in my local sports bar, the topic of the day was the crash of Cory Lidle's Cirrus SR20 into a 50 story condominium in New York City. As more news has become available, we now know that his passenger was a flight instructor, Tyler Stanger. According to the FAA's certificate search, Cory obtained his private pilot certificate in February of this year (2006). Tyler held a Commercial ASEL, MSEL, Instrument, CFI-I, and was an A&P mechanic.

Although the plane was Lidle's and he was supposedly at the controls, we cannot attribute this crash to inexperience.

I've reviewed the METARs for both LGA and TEB and although ceilings were low, they weren't completely unflyable. Lidle departed TEB at around 18:21z. The weather at 1751z at TEB was overcast at 1700'. Pressure was dropping and the temperature/dewpoint spread was narrowing. However, at at 1851z the ceiling had risen to 1900'. One hour later visibility had dropped from 7 miles to 3 miles in drizzle. By then, he had already crashed, though.

LaGuardia airport is closer to the accident scene, so I also looked at its METARs. At 1751, they were reporting visibility of 9 miles, an overcast ceiling of 1800' and a stable temperature/dewpoint spread. At 1951z, they reported light rain and visibility dropped to 8 miles.

Clearly, the weather was not a beautiful fall day, but it wasn't so bad that they should have been flying so low as to strike a 50 story building. According to the CNN photos, he struck the building about 12 stories from the top. This would put him very low indeed, and much lower than the FARs allow.

Some have speculated that wind may have been a factor. Wind was easterly at a maximum of 13 knots during the time in question. Wind tends to swirl around buildings, but he was upwind of the buildings.

The path of the flight appears to have been a sightseeing tour. Although his altitude was not reported, he departed Teterboro at 1821z, made a right turn and flew down the Hudson River until he reached the statue of liberty which he circled. They then proceded north up the East River. At some point he made a left turn, possibly 180 degrees and then struck the tower from the North. He narrowly missed a taller building about 2 blocks north of the impact building.

The airspace around the NYC area is very complex, however, there is a portion of airspace below the Class B that covers the area that is cut out for VFR below 1100'. This basically gives the pilot 100 feet to work with. One must remain 1000' above obstacles, an the water is full of boats, ships, bridges, etc. If you go above 1100', you are in Class B airspace. While it is possible to get clearance to enter the Class B, I would think the controllers would have been reluctant to give clearance to a VFR sightseer. The airspace cutout ends due east of LGA, and the crash was around 72nd Street - very close to the edge. I suspect he was trying to turn around. However, the airspace covers most of Manhattan from the Ground to 7000'. He struck the building while in Class B airspace.

He did not report an emergency.

Was he instructed by ATC to turn around?
Did he have unreported engine trouble?
I've seen the Coast Guard video of the initial impact and I think we can rule out running out of fuel.

Why, then, was he illegally low?

He was very near LaGuardia. With Easterly winds, landing aircraft would have been passing somewhat near his position. The ILS-13 approach would bring aircraft in on a course of 134 with the glide slope intercept at 1900 right about where they begin to cross the East River. The approach plate shows a 600+' structure along the flight path. Could a landing aircraft have been near enough to spook him or to cause ATC to tell him to expedite a left turn?

Although Cory's pilot certificate lists a Polk County, Florida address, he is originally from California. The flight instructor's address on his certificate is also California. Was he just taking a buddy on a sightseeing trip? Was he showing off - buzzing through buildings? Who does he know in the building and the other residential buildings in the vicinity?

This is truly a shame that two pilots died in this manner. Only after we see the full report will we have some idea of what caused him to crash. Even in an emergency, crashing in the river would have been preferred to crashing into a building.

Folks, there are well defined procedures for everything that is related to aviation. The airspace around NYC is complex, but tightly controlled. Cirrus makes a very good aircraft. The weather was not pretty, but not really a factor - the coast guard video backs that up. This leaves two possibilities, pilot error and pilot intention. Time will help narrow the causes. The end result will be the same.

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