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"Inside the mind of a weekend pilot"



Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Inside the mind of a weekend pilot
By Scott McCartney
The Wall Street Journal


Why do people fly?

The tragic death of New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight
instructor last week raised many questions and stirred many fears. Mark
Dunkerley, chief executive of Hawaiian Airlines, was in a meeting when he
received a message on his BlackBerry: A plane has crashed into a New York
building. "You can imagine how frightening that is," he said. An industry
flashed before his eyes.

The crash turned out to be a very human accident that killed two young men.
And, in many minds, it raised a question of why a father and husband with a
lucrative career would risk his life by flying a small plane into
challenging airspace.

I fly the same plane that Cory Lidle flew -- a Cirrus Design Corp. SR20. The
one I share with some partners is about a year older, but otherwise not much
different from his Cirrus. It's a sleek, speedy airplane built with lots of
innovative safety features, including a parachute for the plane. And yet it
has been involved in 21 fatal crashes since Cirrus started selling them in
1999. That says far more about private pilots than about the airplane
itself.

It's hard to explain to people who haven't done it what the joy of soaring
into the sky is really like. Flying a small plane transports you to a
peaceful world -- there is nothing I've found on the ground to match the
calm and serenity of flying. Gerard Arpey, the chief executive of AMR
Corp.'s American Airlines and a private pilot, says that flying is a perfect
stress escape since when you're at the controls of an airplane, you can't
think about anything else.

For private pilots, there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment at
mastering a new skill. It's a fantastic hobby for many; a fundamental
business tool for some. Small planes are a vital air link for towns
abandoned by airline service. They transport organs and surgeons in the
middle of the night. Many pilots, including myself, volunteer to fly cancer
patients free of charge. I helped to evacuate people from Louisiana a few
days after Hurricane Katrina when Angel Flight received permission to begin
relief flights Labor Day weekend.

All the fatal crashes of the Cirrus investigated by the National
Transportation Safety Board so far have been blamed on pilot error. Two had
contributing factors -- one an avionics failure on board and the other a
problem with air-traffic controllers.

But many of these accidents were examples of inexperienced pilots, perhaps
with an exaggerated sense of their ability or too much confidence in their
plane's capability, getting themselves into situations they couldn't handle
or flying places they had no business being. They flew themselves into
mountains, into icing or into clouds when they weren't trained for
instrument flying. It may be the trap of too much cool technology, or simply
over-confident, financially successful people feeling invincible and getting
themselves over their heads. Cory Lidle may prove no different once
investigators figure out what led to the crash.

In aviation, we tolerate different levels of safety. Regulations set up by
the federal government are far stricter for professional pilots than for
weekend flyers, for example. As a matter of public policy, we are far less
willing to tolerate airline crashes than small-plane crashes.

With private pilots, we give them responsibility for their own safety. That
makes sense -- airline operations are different simply because other people
are putting their lives in their trust. Serious pilots know you have to fly
regularly to stay sharp, and weekend fliers should train with flight
instructors more regularly than the once every two years that the Federal
Aviation Administration requires. Most fly with great caution: in 2004,
there were 1.2 fatal accidents for every 100,000 hours of flying.

My family, none of them as wild about flying as I am, expects me to be
paranoid, and honest about my skill limits. If I'm planning a long trip, I
have an airline ticket in my back pocket so I don't feel pressured to fly
into bad weather. But the problem is that too often private pilots aren't
taking that responsibility seriously enough. They do dumb things.

Over the years, there have been numerous examples of newly minted pilots
crashing near their own homes. Why? They get a license, get in a plane and
start flying circles over the homestead to let everyone know of their
accomplishment. Then while focusing too much on the house, they lose control
of their plane and crash.

In 2004, nearly half of the 290 fatal accidents in the U.S. with light
airplanes had pilots with less than 100 hours of experience in the airplanes
they were flying, according to the Air Safety Foundation.

Cirrus, which delivered 600 planes last year, has addressed the problem by
stepping up the training program for new pilots and stiffening requirements
for instructors trained in Cirrus airplanes. An association of Cirrus pilots
sponsors training programs across the country. We don't yet know what
happened to Mr. Lidle and his instructor, Tyler Stanger. We do know they
were sightseeing around Manhattan and flew up the East River essentially
into a box canyon. The airspace they could use was narrow, capped above them
at 1,100 feet above sea level, and blocked in front of them by the La
Guardia Airport airspace, which extends down to the surface when you get
toward the north end of Manhattan.

Pilots can either turn around or request permission to fly through the La
Guardia restricted airspace. We know that Mr. Lidle was not an experienced
pilot, but he had the common sense to take along a flight instructor. But
his 26-year-old flight instructor, who flew in from California to help him
fly his Cirrus to the West Coast, was reportedly not very familiar with the
local airspace. The two might have carefully plotted their flight and
studied navigation charts before takeoff, perhaps only to have something
unexpected happen. Or they might have just jumped in the plane and headed
out for some fun -- a short buzz around the Big Apple before rain moved in
that afternoon.

The Cirrus is a very stable, forgiving airplane capable of tight turns. You
do have to pay attention, however. It has huge windows all around both
pilots -- even a rear window that lets you see the rudder. There's no doubt
that a look to the left before making the turn and the apartment building
that the plane hit would have been clearly visible.

My guess -- and we're all guessing until investigative reports are released
-- is that either they turned too sharply and lost control of the plane, or
they never looked out the left-side windows. Both pilots, worried about
busting the La Guardia airspace, could easily have had their heads down
studying the big moving map in the center of the Cirrus cockpit and they
turned into the building without looking before it was too late. Another
possible indication of distraction or loss of control: Radar showed the
plane descended from 700 feet to 500 feet shortly before the crash. Planes
want to descend during a turn -- pilots have to take action to stay at the
same altitude.

There could be lots of reasons behind the crash, and we may never know
exactly what happened, except that they flew their plane into a building,
much as pilots crash planes into mountains. They may simply have flown too
far into a canyon and not been able to escape. They could have made a
mistake -- a left hand U-turn without first looking.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Mr. Lidle's crash and changes to be
made, it should be this: Pilots need to work harder at keeping themselves
safe.

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