Thursday, October 11, 2007

Cashing In On Cory Lidle

David Nieporent has a post over at Overlawyered on the legal feeding frenzy that the crash of New York Yankee player Cory Lidle has become with claims now totaling $63 million against either the estates of the deceased pilot and his instructor or the aircraft manufacturer. Lidle's widow is of course trying to assert a claim through her lawyer that the aircraft itself, a Cirrus SR20, was defective: "Macaluso [the lawyer] charged Cirrus "knew about these flight control problems ... which cause the controls to lock up." This claim is utter BS of course but that doesn't mean he won't gull some jury into buying it.

The reason I call BS on the lawyer, and why the NTSB got the accident cause exactly right (in short: inadequate planning/pilot error), is that I am familiar with that airspace and fly aircraft with similar capabilities to the SR20. I used to live in New York City and once in a while I'd rent a plane from an FBO up at White Plains airport.

The airspace around New York is Class B airspace, meaning you need to have a clearance from the local approach control to enter it. However, there is a corridor of class D airspace, where clearance is not required, running down the width of the Hudson River and below an altitude of 1,100 feet (or maybe 900', I don't have the chart and it's been a while) to the harbor then hooking left, around the tip of Manhattan and going up the East River to the tip of Roosevelt Island. This is where Mr. Lidle and his instructor came to grief that day.

Cory Lidle was a freshly minted private pilot. I don't know how long his instructor had been flying or how many hours he had but he was not familiar with the area or the airspace. I made the excursion down the Hudson several times, turned around in the harbor and came straight back up the Hudson again. I was very leery of trying the East River because it is essentially a dead end and it would be necessary to get the attention of New York Approach and get permission to penetrate controlled airspace and fly over Manhattan back to the Hudson. The alternative is to attempt to do a 180 degree turn and fly back to the harbor. I have a commercial license with instrument rating and at that time about 400 hours. I was not willing to go into that part of the airspace because the risks weren't worth the view in my opinion.

At the point where Lidle & Tyler attempted to turn around the East River is approximately 1,100 to 1,300 feet wide. Call it a quarter mile. On the day of the crash there was a fairly stiff wind coming from the East at about 12-15 knots (13-17 mph), nearly perpendicular to their direction of flight, coming from their right. The rules of the airspace (uncontrolled is a bit of a misnomer, there are still procedures to follow) are that in those corridors aircraft should stay to the right (just like a car on the road) with southbound traffic staying to the west side of the corridor and northbound traffic to the east. If they were doing this, then when they attempted to turn, they were turning left, downwind. The SR20 is a fairly high performance airplane for being a single-engine aircraft. It is capable of cruising at 150 knots (about 165 mph) or roughly 2.75 miles / 14,500 feet every minute. At that rate of travel, even allowing for the fact that he was flying in an arcing turn and not going straight across, he would have crossed the river in roughly 9-10 seconds and he picked up a 15 knot tailwind in the turn, thereby increasing his speed in relation to the ground. Even if they had banked the airplane to a steep 60 degrees, which would have produced about 12 degrees of direction change per second (4 times standard rate or 3 degrees/second, 180 degrees per minute), a 180 degree turn would have taken 15 seconds. As you can see, the math doesn't work out too well.

The only way they may have gotten away with this maneuver, and this is pure speculation, is if they had bent the rules by staying to the left coming up the river then turning into the wind. They might have violated controlled airspace but there's a lot less to hit on the east side of the river. As it was, they essentially sealed their fate the minute they made the decision to go up the river and not use the option of contacting approach and get clearance to exit what was effectively a box canyon by climbing and overflying Manhattan. Given the conditions that day, there was simply no way they could have gotten away with what they tried. There just wasn't enough physical airspace for it. It wasn't a matter of the "controls locking." I was always taught by my instructors that when I was flying, my head needed to arrive at where I was flying next at least five minutes ahead of the airplane, i.e., I needed to have anticipated what was coming and plan accordingly. Cory Lidle and Tyler Stanger didn't do it.

That's my long winded way of saying that Cirrus should not settle this case because it ought to be very clear, it wasn't the equipment. It was the operator. The problem is that the operator didn't leave a large enough estate and the aircraft manufacturer is perceived to have the deep pockets here, regardless of whether its product is actually at fault.

Update: corrected minor typo in second to last paragraph and added a couple of words for clarity in how many degrees of direction change per second for a standard rate turn.
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Anonymous said...

One has to wonder what control the attorney alleges locked up. Unless the ailerons locked in neutral, the plane would have continuted rolling. That didn't happen here.

I'm a private pilot, but I'm almost being priced out. I'm so tired of trolling Plaintiffs' attorneys.

Anonymous said...

There is another way they could have made the turn. Your analysis proposes a cruise speed of 150 kts. When flying inside canyons out here in the western U.S., common practice is to fly very slowly, so as to make a 180 degree turn within the canyon possible. If Lidle and the instructer had dropped some flaps and reduced their speed to a comfortable margin above stall, they could have made the turn easily.

Brother J said...

Anon 5:59, You could be right and that did actually occur to me but I'm thinking the cross-wind component that day might have even made that an iffy proposition, especially turning downwind like that. Also, I end to think that the additon of flaps, while allowing for a lower airspeed, might end up actually increasing groundspeed in the turn because of the increased surface area for the wind to get hold of. Anyway, I used to live on the East Side only a few blocks North of the crash site and its a very small bit of airspace. They really had no room for error there.

Anonymous said...

Inadequate flight planning. Pilot error. The FAA prohibited use of this corridor afterward because it was only safely flown with airshow performance level of flight planning and execution. The pilots did not (no flt plan, low weather, no contact with ATC) I consider it a strong possibility they may have stalled just prior to impact as they attempted to increase the angle of bank. They lost 100 feet of altitude just prior to impact. Loss of the altitude is characteristic of a steeping angle of bank (and thus go belly up and lose sight of the building)or stall.
The NTSB has an animation from radar data.
The Plaintiff atty is up against facts that do not support their case. Unfortunately, just because something is legal, does not make it inherently safe nor wise. I wouldn't even blame the FAA, properly planned, this sighseeing tour may have been flown safley that day albeet I would venture the low ceilings weighed upon the mind of the CFI. I won't touch possible psycholgical dynamics of the cockpit resource management environment of the flight. One could argue some challenges though that contributed.

"The New York Central Park Automated Observation System reported that at the time of the accident, that the winds were from 060 degrees at 6 knots, visibility at 7 statute miles, ceiling overcast at 1800 feet above ground level, the temperature was 17 degrees Celsius, the dewpoint was 13 degrees Celsius and the altimeter was 29.90 inches of Mercury (Hg). No visibility restrictions were reported at any of the surrounding airport weather stations. An aircraft that was landing at Newark Liberty International Airport (KEWR) at the time of the accident was equipped with a weather reporting capability that indicated that the winds at 700 feet altitude were from 095 degrees at 13 knots.

Over fifty witnesses to the accident were identified and many interview summaries were obtained from the New York Police Department. Eleven of those witnesses saw the airplane before it impacted the building.

Radar data indicate that the airplane was flying over the east side of Roosevelt Island prior to initiating a 180 degree turn. At this location, there would have been a maximum of 2100 feet clearance from buildings, if the full width of the river had been used. However, from the airplane's mid-river position over Roosevelt Island, the available turning width was only 1700 feet. The prevailing wind from the east would have caused the airplane to drift 400 feet toward the building during the turn, reducing the available turning width to about 1300 feet. At an airspeed of 97 knots, this turn would have required a constant bank angle of 53 degrees and a loading of 1.7 Gs on the airplane. If the initial portion of the turn was not this aggressive, a sufficiently greater bank angle would have been needed as the turn progressed, which would have placed the airplane dangerously close to an aerodynamic stall.

Since the accident, The FAA issued a Notice to Airman prohibiting fixed wing aircraft such as the accident flight from operating in the East River Class B Exclusion area where the accident occurred unless authorized and controlled by ATC. This will prevent pilots from encountering a situation in which they must attempt a complete u turn in order to avoid entry into controlled airspace."