Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Lidle crash

A few weeks ago, I detailed my first flight. The one where we left Teterboro, flew down the Hudson River, circled Lady Liberty and headed up the East River and across Central Park back to the Jersey side.

So it was more than unsettling to see Wednesday that Cory Lidle and his flight instructor died while flying the same exact route.

Quite a few people have asked me what I thought of the sad events. Without some specifics, it's hard to say. And it's hard to get too far into an estimate with so many facts still missing. Still, there are some things apparent right from the start, if I'm playing NTSB investigator.

A good deal of flying is about managing risk. Just like driving a car, you can never completely eliminate danger. But you can minimize your exposure to it. We teach the PAVE acronym -- pilot, aircraft, enVironment and external pressures.

Usually we use this at the beginning of a flight to analyze our risk, but it works well in reverse.

1. Pilot

This is an all-too common theme in accident reports. Rich guy gets his private pilot's license. Being rich, he quickly goes out and buys a swanky new plane -- something that's a little too advanced for his initial skill level.

The insurance companies typically only require about 10-15 hours of training in the plane, and off goes your rich guy into the blue yonder.

At 85 hours of flight time, Lidle was an extremely low-time pilot. Risk goes up. In addition, he had only bought the plane, an SR-20, a few months ago, so he's likely got only a little bit of his total time in that type of plane. Risk goes up.

Let's speculate a little and say he didn't fly much during the last few months because he's been busy pitching for a crappy team. So his limited flying skills are rusty. Risk factor goes up.

Next, look at the flight instructor on board. This is pure speculation. But I'd be interested to know how much time he had specifically in the SR-20, because I'm guessing it's not much.

The FAA requires that instructor's have a mere five hours in a specific make and model of plane before being cleared to instruct in it. All I need is my basic instructor's license. Nothing more. Obivously, if Stanger has just as little time as Lidle in the make and model, risk factor goes up.

2. Aircraft.

From all indications, the engine was running at the time of impact.

There have been reports that there was a fuel problem aboard. Even so, short of the plane spontaneously exploding like TWA 800, there's so reason that if they had lost their engine, they wouldn't have been able to establish a gentle glide down.

Short of that, this particular plane is equipped with a parachute. Why didn't they deploy the chute?

3. Environment.

The weather at Teterboro was about 3 statute miles of visibility shortly after the crash, and conditions seemed like they were marginal. The minium requirement for VFR flight is 3 statute miles and a 1,000-foot ceiling.

Even if it was 5 SM, it would still be considered marginal conditions. Risk factor goes waaay up.

The most common cause of fatal aviation accidents is people flying VFR -- visual flight rules -- into instrument conditions. Now, video of this accident seems to show that these guys should have been able to see that building coming straight at them, so it doesn't seem to fit that they were flying blind in the soup.

But visibility might have been just poor enough where they lost track of where they were, a loss of situational awareness.

4. External pressures

You'll see a lot of accident reports of people itching to get somewhere, so they take off in questionable conditions. It doesn't seem like that would be much of a factor here. These guys had a hotel reservation in Nashville that night, but obviously had time to do a NYC sightseeing flight, so I don't think they were pressing to get somewhere.

So add it all up.

Not much when you look at each part separately, but when you combine all those raised risk factors, it's a recipe for trouble.

What actually happened to those guys? We'll probably never know.

Maybe they had some sort of fuel problem, and instead of following the emergency procedure, they panicked and went into that unnecessarily steep turn.

Maybe they got distracted dealing with that problem. One of the primary things we teach when dealing with an emergency is simply but important. Fly the plane! You'd be surprised at how quickly people get distracted from everything else going on and forget to fly the damned plane.

There's a famous example of this from an Eastern Airlines crash in the Everglades that came in the 1970s. These guys were on approach into Miami at night in an L-1011 when they noticed a landing-gear indicator light failed to illuminate -- the gear might not be down.

So they got a clearance to fly west of the airport for a while while they investigated the problem. There's three guys in the cockpit. They're all focused on the gear-position light problem, so much so that no one notices that they must have brushed up against the yoke and disengaged the auto pilot.

Silently, the plane began a descent from its circling altitude of 3,000 feet into the black night of the Everglades. All the while, the three pilots are befuddled by the gear light. At long last, the last voice captured on the CVR is "Hey, we're still at 3,000 feet, aren't we?"

Two seconds later, the plane crashes.

The investigation revealed the gear light simply needed a new bulb.

Anyway, that was a little long-winded, but fly the plane.

In regard to Lidle and Stanger, I'm not sure this comes into play. But there's no earthly reason a fuel problem would result in that awful steep bank into the apartments unless these guys were maybe so focused on the problem, they forgot to pay attention.

Worse comes to worse, pull the chute and glide into the river.

That obviously didn't happen, and we're left to wonder what went wrong.

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At 10:40 AM, Blogger Jay said...

"he's been busy pitching for a crappy team"


At 5:18 PM, Blogger Todd Cohen said...

How does a "crappy" team make the playoffs? Just for that comment, I'm not coming West for the big shindig next month.

Who the hell am I kidding? I already paid for the ticket already. We Jews don't like to waste dinero. I may be wearing a Yankee tie at the party though.

At 4:33 PM, Blogger Todd Cohen said...

Is it me or it is a little upsetting (also frighting and hopefully not a harbinger) to see a mention of a disaster on the front page your blog the week of your wedding?


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