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FAA reviews long-criticized Manhattan flight path

AP | October 13 2006

Federal officials on Friday were winding down their onsite investigation of the crash of New York Yankees pitcher Corey Lidle's plane into a skyscraper and said they were reviewing rules that allow small aircraft to fly in Manhattan's crowded airspace.

The general aviation corridors around Manhattan have been "the Wild West," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-New York. He and Sen. Charles Schumer said anyone flying near the island should be under the supervision of air traffic controllers, especially in the post-September 11 era.

"A smart terrorist could load up a small, little plane with biological, chemical or even nuclear material and fly up the Hudson or East rivers, no questions asked," said Schumer, D-New York. "I hope this will be a wake-up call to the FAA to re-examine flight patterns, which, amazingly enough, they haven't done since 9/11."

New York's Republican governor, George Pataki, also said the Federal Aviation Administration "needs to take a much tougher line" about private, or general aviation, flights over the city.

FAA spokeswoman Laura J. Brown said Thursday the agency has decided to review those guidelines and flight restrictions. (Watch people question why small planes can fly around Manhattan -- 1:56 )

Lidle's single-engine plane slammed into the building Wednesday while flying over the East River, which separates Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens and is lined with skyscrapers and landmarks, including the United Nations. He and California-based flight instructor, Tyler Stanger, were killed.

It was unclear who was at the controls. The question of who was flying Lidle's 545 Cirrus SR20 will influence whether his family receives a $1.5 million insurance payment from baseball's benefit plan. The plan excludes "any incident related to travel in an aircraft ... while acting in any capacity other than as a passenger."

The plane looped around the Statue of Liberty, then followed the East River over the Brooklyn Bridge and past the U.N., authorities said.

Much of the airspace over the rivers that encircle Manhattan is unrestricted for small aircraft flying under 1,100 feet, a little lower than the Empire State Building. Small planes and helicopters beneath that ceiling aren't required to file flight plans or check in with air traffic controllers, as long as they are over water.

By about 96th Street, general aviation aircraft headed north must either execute a U-turn to avoid the restricted airspace around LaGuardia Airport or get permission from air traffic control to go any further.

Lidle's plane struck The Belaire condominium tower near that turnaround point.

The plane was cruising at 112 mph at 700 feet as it began to make a U-turn. It was last seen on radar about a quarter-mile north of the building, in the middle of the turn, at 500 feet, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The crash rained pieces of fiery wreckage on the street and sidewalk.

Workers in hard hats collected pieces of the wreckage Thursday and placed the charred debris neatly on a silver-colored tarp in the bed of a pickup truck as neighborhood children gathered to gawk at the jagged and twisted metal, glass shards and wheels.

Crews recovered the nose, wings, tail and instrument panel of the four-seat plane, as well as a hand-held GPS device. The workers conducted an exhaustive, floor-by-floor sweep of the building, including terraces and ledges, NTSB spokeswoman Debbie Hersman said.

Residents also began returning to their scorch-marked tower. One witness recalled the terrifying sight of a charred body amid the plane wreckage strewn on the street.

"It was in a fetal position, strapped into a seat. I could see a white leg sticking up. It was awful," said maintenance worker Juan Rosario.

Stanger, 26, who left behind a pregnant wife and a young child, operated a flight school in La Verne, California. He and Lidle apparently planned to fly from New York to California this week.

"They were going to fly back together. It was right after the (Yankees') loss to Detroit," said Dave Conriguez, who works at the airport coffee shop near Stanger's flight school. "Tyler's such a great flight instructor that I never gave it a second thought. It was just, 'See you in a week."'

Lidle, 34, lived with his wife and 6-year-old son in Glendora, California, outside Los Angeles. He got his pilot's license during the off-season last year.

New York-based flight instructor Stanley Ferber said the low-altitude airspace in and around the city is bustling with "a myriad of helicopters and planes." The city's heliports handle an estimated 88,000 takeoffs and landings a year.

"As a pilot, you always have to be on your toes, but it is not a tight situation," Ferber said. "In all the time of my flying over New York, I've never had anything like a close call."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a recreational pilot with decades of experience, said he believes the skies are safe under the current rules.

"We have very few accidents for an awful lot of traffic," he said. "Every time you have an automobile accident, you're not going to go and close the streets or prohibit people from driving."


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