The Lidle Crash: "Too Much Plane"?

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The investigation into the crash of the small airplane owned by New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle is just beginning, but already aviation experts and pilots are quietly speculating that it may be yet another case of "too much plane." Much like the crash that claimed the life of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and a friend in 1999, there are signs that this may be a case of a relatively inexperienced pilot who ran into trouble in a high-performance plane that he had not yet mastered fully.

The two people onboard the Cirrus SR20 plane, Lidle and a flight instructor, were killed when the state-of-the-art plane plowed into a 42-story New York apartment building. Though initial reports indicated that the plane issued a distress call, in a late-night press conference Deborah Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board did not report such a call. Hersman said the NTSB was just beginning its investigation, including looking at the aircraft, the engine and the actions of the pilot.

According to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the plane circled the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor on the cloudy afternoon before heading uptown, where something went wrong. The plane's flight path was completely "legal" — operating in approved air space and under clear regulations. Small planes and helicopters are permitted to fly up and down Manhattan Island, over either the East River or the Hudson River to the west. Since much of the surrounding air space is the busiest in the U.S. — with hundreds of airliners and business jet flights going in and out of John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark International and Teterboro airports, small planes are required to fly below 1,100 feet.

One report said the visibility at the time of the crash was not good, since the heavy cloud layer sat at about 2,000 feet. That meant Lidle's plane had to stay within a relatively narrow range of movement — within the width of the East River, not too high and certainly not too low. All while Lidle and his instructor were apparently trying to peer through the clouds to see the sights of New York before they headed on their cross-country trip to California. If not exactly a recipe for trouble, there wasn't much of a safety cushion.

Lidle's plane was under "visual flight rules," meaning the pilots — not air traffic controllers — are responsible for keeping an eye out for other aircraft or obstacles. Lidle did not (and was not required to) file a "flight plan," or detailed route, with the Federal Aviation Administration before taking off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. General aviation planes like Lidle's typically have transponders that automatically send out a signal that makes them visible on an air traffic controller's radar.

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