Avid pilot Lidle was with instructor

NYC residents briefly fear repeat of 9/11 attacks

Yankees pitcher killed in plane crash

October 12, 2006|By Melanie Lefkowitz | Melanie Lefkowitz,Newsday

NEW YORK -- A single-engine airplane owned by New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle sputtered out of the hazy skies and slammed into the side of an exclusive Manhattan apartment tower yesterday, killing Lidle and a flight instructor but miraculously leaving no one in the building seriously hurt.

The fiery crash 30 floors above the street sent panicked residents and passers-by running as smoke, fire and aircraft parts rained down to the street. It evoked still-fresh flashbacks to Sept. 11, 2001, and sparked fears of terrorism across the city. As hundreds of firefighters and armor-clad police flooded the streets and helicopters took to the sky, flames shot out of the building's north side while black smoke billowed up and debris poured down.

National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman said at a news briefing last night that debris was scattered everywhere at the crash scene, including aircraft parts and headsets on the ground. The propeller separated from the engine. Investigators also obtained the pilot's logbook.

Hersman said the pilot of the aircraft was talking to an air traffic controller for part of the time, telling the controller he was flying up and down the East River. But he declined to maintain contact with the controller.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it was too early to determine what might have caused the crash.

"What I was seeing was things flying out of the building, which was very reminiscent [of 9/11], " said James Trezza, who was walking his dog past the building at 524 E. 72nd St. when the plane struck. "Everyone started running toward Central Park. ... Huge fireballs started coming out. ... It was like, here we go again."

The plane, a Cirrus SR20 registered to Lidle, 34, took off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey at 2:29 p.m. without filing a flight plan, officials said. But a flight plan was not required, they said.

After circling the Statue of Liberty, the plane headed north up the East River, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in an evening news conference. It disappeared from radar near the Queensboro Bridge and a 911 call about the crash was logged at 2:42 p.m., Bloomberg said. Police sources said the flight instructor who was killed was believed to be Tyler Stanger of California.

Witnesses said they heard what sounded like a sputtering engine and that the plane, which investigators say may have just made a U-turn to avoid traveling into LaGuardia Airport's airspace, seemed to try to maneuver away from the building, but to no avail.

"The man was going down and he was trying to pull up, but he didn't have enough power," said Harold Vine, who works at the nearby Gracie Square Hospital. "And then I heard a boom."

According to Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman in Washington, the East River corridor where the plane was flying ends at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, near where Lidle's plane crashed.

"He was about to bump into LaGuardia's airspace," Brown said. "He was going to have to turn around if he was going to stay in the ... corridor."

Brown said no attempt was made to contact controllers for LaGuardia, whose permission the pilot would need to continue flying north. The FAA has no record of a distress call, but she said it's possible that the plane did issue a call to another pilot on another frequency flying in the same area.

On the street below the crash, police said Lidle's passport was found. The pitcher, who was traded to the Yankees in July and lived in California with his wife, Melanie, and 6-year-old son, Christopher, only recently earned his pilot's license and bought the four-seat plane.

"I think riding a motorcycle without a helmet is a lot more dangerous than being a low-time private pilot," Lidle recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "The flying? I'm not worried about it. I'm safe up there. I feel very comfortable with my abilities flying an airplane."

Lidle had talked enthusiastically just three days ago about flying to California this week.

As he cleaned out his locker at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, 24 hours after the Yankees' postseason hopes fizzled in a loss to the Detroit Tigers, he said that he planned to work on instrument training exercises yesterday before he left for California, and that his regular instructor was coming in to work with him.

Lidle said last month that the four-year-old plane had cost $187,000 and had "cool safety features."

"The whole plane has a parachute on it," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of pilots that go up never have engine failure, and the 1 percent that do usually land it. But if you're up in the air and something goes wrong, you pull that parachute, and the whole plane goes down slowly."

The parachute apparently did not deploy yesterday, officials said. The same model plane has been involved in 20 accidents since 1999, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

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