Pilot Experience Probed in N.Y. Crash

An investigator walks next to wreckage from the small-plane crash that killed Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor.
An investigator walks next to wreckage from the small-plane crash that killed Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor. (By Mario Tama -- Getty Images)
By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

The trip was supposed to be fun -- two young guys making their first trip from New York to California in a new airplane.

Instead, safety experts say, new clues suggest that inexperience, combined with a challenging flying environment, could have contributed to what went wrong aboard the small plane that crashed into a New York condominium tower Wednesday, killing New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor, Tyler Chase Stanger.

Records from the plane's manufacturer, Cirrus Design Corp., show that Stanger had not completed a five-day training course that the company requires for those who teach students how to fly its airplanes. Stanger, 26, has operated a flight-instructor service with Cessna planes in California for three years, but it was unclear how much experience he had with the Cirrus aircraft.

Those factors, combined with the fact that Lidle, 34, was a new pilot and the two were flying in a challenging section of airspace around Manhattan are likely issues that investigators are narrowing in on, according to safety experts. Lidle had registered the new plane just months earlier. The official cause of the crash, safety officials said, will not likely be known for months or years.

"Here you've got two guys relatively inexperienced in this type of airplane to start with. If something happens, you don't have a lot of background knowledge to draw upon," said Greg Feith, a former federal accident investigator. But, he added, "there have to be other extenuating circumstances that influenced the movement of that airplane."

Among the factors that investigators are likely to consider, Feith said, are whether the pilot took evasive action to avoid traffic or some other object, whether there were mechanical issues with the plane, and why the plane was flying so slowly and was descending just before impact.

David Conriquez, a cook at a restaurant at Brackett Field in La Verne, Calif., where Stranger and Lidle flew together, said that he saw Stanger on Sunday and that the instructor was excited to meet Lidle in New York so the two could fly back to California together.

"He said 'I'm going to meet Cory, and I'll see you next week,' " recalled Conriquez, who developed a casual relationship with the two men. Whenever it was the off-season, the two made it a routine to stop by for breakfast and lunch when they would fly there.

Safety investigators yesterday combed several floors and outdoor terraces of the Belaire Condominiums on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where the plane hit the 40th floor, resulting in a fire that destroyed several units. Investigators said they had located all the major components of the aircraft yesterday and the examination of the engine indicated that the propellers were moving at the time of impact, suggesting that the engine was operating.

National Transportation Safety Board member Deborah Hersman also said the aircraft's parachute, a unique standard feature of the Cirrus airplanes, had been "thermally deployed," but she suggested that it could be related to the post-crash fire. She said the chute was "tightly packaged" and had "significant burn damage." Hersman said the safety investigators have not determined who was at the controls at the time of the crash.

The plane was not in communication with air traffic controllers at the time of the accident and was not required to do so in the low-altitude area along the Hudson and East rivers, which sandwich Manhattan. Local pilots familiar with the area and flying conditions there said it can be particularly challenging for inexperienced pilots or those unfamiliar with the area because of the heavy helicopter traffic from the sightseeing tours and because of the gusty winds over the East River, in particular.

"You don't want to violate Kennedy or La Guardia airspace. The biggest challenge is the helicopter traffic," said Anthony Ripani, a flight instructor with the Telephone Employees Flying Club, based in Long Island. "It can be a little windy, especially on the East River side. It's a little gustier."

Radar data revealed that the plane departed from Teterboro, N.J., and took what appeared to be a route common with pilots seeking spectacular views of the city. The plane flew first along the Hudson River, around the Statue of Liberty and then up the East River, turning left a quarter mile north of the apartment building it struck, traveling at 112 mph.

The plane began its turn while flying at 700 feet, according to the NTSB, and the last radar data of the plane's location before impact showed it had descended to 500 feet. There was a light wind at the time and the air was hazy, although a cloud ceiling at 1,700 feet. Pilots who fly along the East River area must fly below 1,100 feet.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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