N.Y. flight restrictions urged

Pataki says crash highlights need for more control over city's airspace

October 13, 2006|By Ellen Barry | Ellen Barry,Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- On any given day, a small swarm of day-trippers, paramedics, traffic reporters and downtown executives fly over the East River. A day after Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle's small aircraft slammed into an apartment building, several area 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 plane crash "brings into sharp focus the need to gain greater control of the airspace around New York." He proposed that all planes flying at altitudes of less than 1,500 feet be monitored by air traffic controllers, so that New York's airspace is 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 flies a small Cesna. Twenty-five years ago, when Ferber finally enticed his wife to go flying with him, this was the route he chose -- the 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 flying in this space, 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 Association, 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, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday collected pieces of the shattered aircraft from apartments, from terraces and ledges and from the street, 30 stories down. Lidle and his flight instructor, Tyler Stanger, were riding in a Cirrus SR20, a high-performance four-seat propeller plane when it crashed into the 50-story brick building. Board member Debbie Hersman said investigators had retrieved bent propellers, a charred parachute and a dented memory chip from the plane's display panel.

Hersman said investigators do not know which man was acting as the primary pilot when the plane crashed. She said its propellers were evidently still turning when it hit the building, and its parachute had not been deployed.

Although she did not speculate on the cause of the crash, Hensman could describe the moments that proceeded it: After making a 180-degree loop around the tip of Manhattan Island, Lidle's airplane headed north along the East River, between Queens and Roosevelt Island. When the plane was as far north as 70th Street, it was still heading north, at a speed of 112 miles per hour and at an altitude of 700 feet. Soon after, the plane would make a second 180-degree turn, because at 96th Street it would have entered restricted airspace around LaGuardia Airport.

The next radar data showed that Lidle's plane had turned around and was headed south, 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 a turn with a radius of a mile, said Robert Spragg, a former military pilot who practices law relating to air accidents. At that point, a pilot could find him or herself in "a very limited space," Spragg said.

Possible explanations buzzed among pilots familiar with the route. Felix Chabanov, a flight instructor in Farmingdale, New York, thought the pilot may have pulled back on the yoke, which controls the plane's altitude, as he approached the sharp turn, hoping to move to a higher altitude. 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 leapt upon the issue of small aircraft yesterday, saying they should not be allowed to come near the city's tall buildings.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat, renewed a push yesterday to bar small planes from the airspace around Manhattan. His proposal would prohibit helicopters from flying within 1,500 feet of any structure or building, and require constant contact with air traffic control. "It's time to start treating helicopters just as seriously as we do jumbo jets," he said.

Ellen Barry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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