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NYC Crash Puts Flight Path in Politicians' Sights

Gov. Pataki and others call for restrictions on pilots using the popular East River route.

October 13, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On any given day, a small swarm of day-trippers, paramedics, traffic reporters and downtown executives flies along the East River. A day after New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle's small aircraft slammed into a condominium tower, several politicians called for strict curbs on such flights, saying they offer terrorists easy access to the city's landmarks.

Gov. George E. Pataki said the crash "brings into sharp focus the need to gain greater control of the airspace around New York."

He proposed that all planes flying lower than 1,500 feet be monitored by air traffic controllers so that New York's airspace would be as closely monitored as Washington's.

Among the New Yorkers incensed by Pataki's proposal is Stanley Ferber, 66, a retired Fire Department dispatcher who pilots a Cessna.

Twenty-five years ago, when Ferber finally enticed his wife to fly with him, the East River was the route he chose -- one with a majestic view down the long, straight columns of Manhattan's streets to the Hudson. She was so spellbound, he said, her fear deserted her.

To restrict this airspace, Ferber said, would be "taking away part of my freedom."

"We think of it as a knee-jerk reaction," said Kathryn Fitzpatrick, a spokeswoman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn., which represents 408,000 pilots in the United States. "We kind of look at this as no different than a car accident. It just happened 300 feet off the ground. Car accidents happen every day ... but you don't shut down the highway."

At the scene of the crash, National Transportation Safety Board investigators on Wednesday collected pieces of the aircraft from residences, from terraces and ledges, and from the street, 30 stories down.

Lidle and his flight instructor, Tyler Stanger, were in a Cirrus SR20, a high-performance, four-seat propeller plane, when it crashed into the 42-story brick building.

Debbie Hersman of the NTSB said investigators had retrieved the bent propeller, a burned parachute and a dented memory chip from the plane's display panel.

Hersman said investigators did not know which man was acting as the primary pilot when the plane crashed.

She said its propeller was evidently still turning when it hit, and its parachute had not been deployed.

Although she did not speculate on the cause of the crash, Hersman described the moments that preceded it: After a 180-degree turn around the tip of Manhattan Island, Lidle's plane headed north along the East River, between Queens and Roosevelt Island. When the plane was at 70th Street, it was still heading north, at 112 mph and at an altitude of 700 feet. Soon after, the plane would have to turn before 96th Street to avoid restricted airspace around LaGuardia Airport.

The next radar data showed Lidle's plane making the turn about a quarter-mile north of the crash site, at an altitude of 500 feet.

Experienced New York pilots know this turn well. A pilot approaching it too fast, or at the wrong angle of bank, could be forced into making the turn with a one-mile radius, said Robert Spragg, a former military pilot who now practices law relating to air accidents. In that event, a pilot could find himself in "a very limited space," Spragg said.

Possible explanations buzzed among pilots familiar with the route. Felix Chabanov, a flight instructor in Farmingdale, N.Y., thought the pilot may have pulled back on the yoke -- which controls altitude -- as he approached the sharp turn, hoping to get higher. That action may have caused the plane to stall, losing its lift characteristics, while visibility was bad, he said.

Chabanov said he was worried about talk of closing the area to general aviation. "Weather permitting, with an experienced pilot, it's very safe," he said.

Several lawmakers leaped on the issue of small aircraft Thursday, saying they should not be allowed near city skyscrapers.

The stretch of the East River where Lidle's plane flew is a visual flight rule corridor, meaning pilots are allowed to navigate by sight as long as they remain under 1,100 feet. Pilots in the corridor are not required to maintain radio contact with controllers or file a flight plan. The corridor is used by scores of helicopters, as well as tourist and commuter flights.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday renewed a push to bar small planes from the airspace around Manhattan. His proposal would ban helicopters within 1,500 feet of any structure, and require constant contact with air traffic controllers. "It's time to start treating helicopters just as seriously as we do jumbo jets," he said.

ellen.barry@latimes.com

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