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.
A staunch defender of private flying, Landsburg says the safety records of such flights are good and getting better. But he bluntly highlights several well-known trouble spots -- which nearly always involve "lack of either skill or judgment" by pilots -- in an annual accident summary.
"If you go flying with me on a nice sunny day and we decide to take a cross-country trip, I would suggest that your odds are very good of getting where you're going," Landsburg says. "If you have to get over the Rocky Mountains in January in a small plane that is not certified for icing conditions, your risks have just gone up exponentially."
Because as many as nine out of 10 private plane accidents are attributed to human error, Landsburg's group and the Federal Aviation Administration are focusing safety efforts on better educating pilots about the issues linked to the most fatal accidents, such as aggressive maneuvers, bad weather and maintaining control.
NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker says the Lidle accident is typical of what the agency sees dozens of times a year. "It is probably the most common fatal accident type," he says.
The board's files are filled with examples of pilots getting into trouble in small planes because they weren't familiar with the aircraft, maneuvered too aggressively or lost control. Among them:
*Jeff Ellingham, 42, crashed his Globe GC-1B, a 1946-vintage aircraft, near Cypress, Texas, on Aug.6, 2005, after allowing it to slow down too much, the NTSB ruled. Ellingham had flown for 639 hours, but only 120 hours in the Globe. Ellingham and his brother-in-law, David Hines, 43, died.
*Christopher Copple, 43, had logged 1,052 hours of experience piloting small planes over Alaska. When he agreed to fly three friends to a remote river for fishing, he borrowed a Cessna 170B, a slightly larger plane than he was accustomed to. The NTSB calculated that he had only 14 hours in the plane.
Investigators ruled that he was flying too slowly over a primitive landing strip on July 30, 2004. The plane rolled over and nosed into the ground, killing all four aboard.
*Gerald Miller, 60, had amassed 185 hours in the brief time he'd been a pilot but only 12 in his newly purchased Cirrus SR-22, a higher-performance version of the plane Lidle owned. He was flying with a flight instructor on Sept. 10, 2004, when the plane slowed to a dangerous speed and plummeted. The crash killed Miller and seriously injured his instructor.
Love of aviation
Lidle and Stanger, who lived near each other in Southern California, learned to fly over the hillsides east of Los Angeles. Lidle, 34, started flight training after the 2005 baseball season and picked Stanger, 26, who worked at Brackett Field in La Verne, Calif., as his teacher.
Stanger praised his student, telling The New York Times a month before the accident that Lidle had an uncommon ability to remain calm and do the right thing during simulated emergencies.
Stanger began working on planes as a teenager, worked his way up to fully certified mechanic and later earned a license to teach flying.
"I called him the airport rat," said Jason Paul, 23, who learned to fly under Stanger's tutelage and became his friend. "He did everything" -- from changing oil to installing avionics, from teaching novices to flying big planes himself. "There wasn't anything in aviation he didn't do."
Paul and others say Stanger was a cautious pilot who emphasized safety checklists to his students and flew the same way himself.
"He was not your average Sunday flier," says Robin Howard, owner of Howard Aviation in La Verne, which had employed Stanger on and off since he was 17. "And he was good at it. I would not use someone who is not a good pilot."
Stanger had once flown the same route up the East River several years ago after buying a plane in the New York area, Paul says.
Aside from that earlier trip, Stanger had little or no experience flying in the New York area. Though he had accumulated thousands of hours in planes, he also apparently had few hours in the Cirrus, according to Howard. Lidle had a total of only 88 hours and was "pilot in command" for 47 of those, according to the NTSB.
Neither pilot had apparently completed the Cirrus-designed training program suggested by the manufacturer, says Cirrus Design CEO and co-founder Alan Klapmeier. The SR-20 is a faster plane than many of its counterparts of the same size and has some special safety features, including a parachute that could carry the plane and occupants down to safety in an emergency.
Lidle's and Stanger's final flight took off the afternoon of Oct. 11. Someone in the cockpit told an air traffic controller that they planned to fly in areas that don't require a flight plan, including the scenic East River corridor.
They had several factors working against them. A 15-mph wind was blowing out of the east as they flew up the river. On a typical U-turn to the left, that wind would push them toward Manhattan.
At the same time, radar showed they were traveling at 112 mph, according to the NTSB. That speed would require a relatively wide turn unless they banked far more steeply than normal.
If they banked aggressively at 30 degrees, the turn would have carried them hundreds of feet off course over Manhattan, according to Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators, a widely used aviation manual. The wind would have put them even more off course.
The problems could have been exacerbated by banking so steeply that the plane became difficult to control, the NTSB said.
Within seconds, the plane was surrounded by skyscrapers. It cleared two nearby buildings, but slammed into a third, The Belaire at 524 E. 72nd St.