NYC Plane Crash Was All Too Typical

Yankees pitcher, teacher probably died as result of common pilot errors.


As New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor cruised their small plane over the East River past spectacular views of New York City skyscrapers, they ran into a deadly mix of problems that repeatedly contribute to crashes throughout the country.

Lidle's fiery crash last month into the side of a Manhattan high-rise was the most publicized small plane incident in years, but it was typical of fatal accidents that occur four or five times a week and claim hundreds of lives a year, according to a USA TODAY analysis of accident statistics and top safety experts.

Lidle and instructor Tyler Stanger found themselves in circumstances that often lead to deaths in small planes:

*About one-fourth of all fatal accidents on recreational flights occur when problems develop during aggressive maneuvering. Such maneuvering can include aerobatics, buzzing the ground -- and the tight U-turn attempted by Lidle and Stanger moments before their crash.

*Pilots with 100 hours or less time in a specific aircraft model account for 45% of the fatal crashes for which data are available. Lidle had flown less than 100 total hours since learning to fly in the past year. Stanger was a veteran pilot but had little or no experience flying the Cirrus SR-20, according to friends. Neither pilot had flown much in the complex air routes around New York City.

*A loss of control triggers one-third of fatal recreational plane crashes. Though federal investigators haven't finished their investigation of the Lidle crash, it appears almost certain that the pilots lost control before their single-engine plane hit the 42-story building, according to preliminary information from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

A preliminary report by federal investigators Friday cited a stiff wind blowing Lidle's plane off course. The NTSB said the wind, coupled with the pilot's inability to turn sharply with only about 1,700 feet of room, forced the aircraft off its intended path over the East River.

Lidle and Stanger were cautious, safety-minded pilots, according to people who flew with them. But so are most of the people who crash, says Michael Barr, a veteran pilot and director of the University of Southern California's Aviation Safety and Security Program. "The majority of accidents happen to good pilots who are very confident of what they do," Barr says. "Sometimes they do something that is beyond their abilities."

Lidle and Stanger "do fit a profile, there is no question about that," says Bruce Landsburg, executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation.

Numbers near record lows

The numbers of private plane crashes and resulting deaths have fallen dramatically since the 1980s. In fact, after staying flat for several years, the totals for crashes, fatal crashes and deaths are poised to set record lows this year.

Fatal crashes involving personal private plane flights such as Lidle's fell from 372 in 1982 to 220 last year, a 41% reduction, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from the NTSB. Deaths declined even more, a 51% drop from 785 in 1982 to 381 last year.

This year through Sept. 24, there were 123 fatal crashes that killed 220 people on personal flights, well below the same period in recent years.

The federal government does not monitor the number of hours flown per year on personal plane flights, so it's impossible to calculate the rate at which they crash.

But in the broader category of all flights except those of air carriers, there have been about 1.3 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours since 2000. The fatal accident rate has fallen from an average of 1.6 per 100,000 hours in the late 1980s, but it is still more dangerous than other types of flying. Airlines, by comparison, have only one fatal accident every 10million flight hours.

"I can't say that personal flying is safer than driving a car," says the Air Safety Foundation's Landsburg.

This content continues onto the next page...

We Recommend

  • Press Release

    Yankees Pitcher Crash Gets Final Hearing

    NTSB to meet today to review a final report on the accident, but documents show investigators have had surprisingly little to go on.

  • News

    U.S. Plans NYC Flight Restrictions

    The NTSB's documents do not contain final conclusions about what caused the Cory Lidle accident but lay out the facts and evidence gathered by investigators.

  • News

    U.S. Plans NYC Flight Restrictions

    The NTSB's documents do not contain final conclusions about what caused the Cory Lidle accident but lay out the facts and evidence gathered by investigators.

  • Press Release

    U.S. Plans NYC Flight Restrictions

    The NTSB's documents do not contain final conclusions about what caused the Cory Lidle accident but lay out the facts and evidence gathered by investigators.