Lidle SR20 crash in New York ignites debate about GA safety

 - November 7, 2006, 8:03 AM

When New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, 34, and his flight instructor, Tyler Stranger, 26, crashed their Cirrus SR20 into an east side Manhattan high-rise on October 11, the resultant outcry predictably called for more restrictions against general aviation.

Fearing the worst, the North American Aerospace Defense Command had fighter aircraft flying combat air patrols over at least half a dozen cities within minutes of the accident. Several hours later, when it became clear the crash had nothing to do with terrorism, the fighters were recalled.

Understandably, television pictures of the burning apartment building–aired almost continuously from the time of the mid-afternoon accident until late in the evening–unnerved New Yorkers and many television viewers. That led some politicians to demand more restrictions on general aviation, mostly under the guise of improving security.

They assailed what they considered lax FAA rules that allow VFR flights up and down the Hudson and East Rivers within defined flight corridors and without communication with any ATC facility. Only New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a pilot, lent a voice of calm, according to a number of GA lobbyists.

“It’s the Wild West when it comes to airspace,” Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was quoted as saying in USA Today. “It is wildly counterintuitive that the lower you fly, the less regulation and oversight you encounter.”

Weiner, it should be remembered, has sponsored several anti-GA bills couched in the language of “security.” One would have required airline-style screening and continuous contact with the FAA for every GA flight. In addition, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said the FAA should consider “banning or seriously restricting” GA aircraft over New York City.

The FAA responded to the New York City accident on October 13 by excluding fixed-wing aircraft from the East River corridor “for safety considerations” unless pilots obtain authorization from and are being controlled by ATC.

The announcement, which came in the form of a notam, noted that the restriction was effective immediately and will remain in place pending further review of current guidelines by the FAA and its government and industry partners.

Seaplanes operating in and out of the New York Skyports Seaplane Base continue to be permitted to operate in the corridor, which extends from the southwestern tip of Governor’s Island to the north tip of Roosevelt Island, below an altitude of 1,100 feet. Helicopter operations in the East River corridor are not affected by the change.

“Considering all of the possible overreactions to the Lidle accident being demanded by some, the FAA’s safety response is reasonable,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer. “This provides some breathing room while the NTSB gathers the facts and arrives at an accident cause determination.”

Bloomberg said that requiring VFR aircraft flying the river corridors to be in contact with ATC “might make it less safe because the controllers can’t handle the volume.” And while first responders reacted speedily and precisely, he indicated the accident says “nothing” about security in New York City.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley once again demanded a no-fly zone over downtown Chicago for GA aircraft. Daley, hardly considered a friend to general aviation, lobbied for a permanent no-fly zone over Chicago after 9/11 and ordered Meigs Field torn up in the middle of the night. After the most recent incident, he said, “Remember: a single- or two-engine plane can kill as many people as possible if they want to.”

Daley is likely to meet resistance in his demands for a no-fly zone. In fact, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an editorial titled “No-fly zone deserves to stay grounded.” The newspaper noted that Daley blames the general aviation lobby for blocking the no-fly zone for the city, suggesting that safety takes a back seat to the influence of the AOPA.

“Rubbish,” the Sun-Times said. “It’s hard to fathom the federal government putting safety at risk for a large group of people who like to fly planes. And does the mayor need to be told why Washington, D.C., the only city with a no-fly zone, is a special case?”