In the chart above, you can see the blue border around the East River; that denotes the edges of the "uncontrolled" airspace which Lidle's plane was traversing. That is about as narrow as a band of designated airspace can get.
NY Sectional Chart taken from SkyVector.com
I’ve been reading what I can about the Cory Lidle tragedy and I’ve come to the following conclusions:
- Lidle’s and the flight instructor’s families have certainly lost the most. My thoughts are obviously with them.
- General aviation has been dealt another high-profile blow to its credibility as a commonplace means of travel and commerce, regardless of what the eventual NTSB findings conclude. Phil Boyer, AOPA president, has his work cut out for him.
- The New York Times has provided a glimpse into what might have gone wrong from a flight planning and management perspective, pointing out that the East River airspace in which Lidle was traveling northbound is a very narrow strip of sky for visual, non-instrument procedure flight. (See also the informative interactive graphic. I’ve also traced an estimated flight path in the inset chart graphic.) You can only fly up to 1,100 feet above ground level here. A well-known U-turn required to avoid entering La Guardia’s airspace around 86th and Roosevelt Island is tight and perhaps easy to take too wide if you are distracted, there is a strong easterly wind, or some other factor dominates your attention.
Right now, all I can say as a pilot is: I’m going to re-study my checklists and keep honing the brand of judgement that aggravates my friends when I conclude the weather isn’t safe enough for that cross-country trip to northern Michigan.Update:
Rich Karlgaard at Forbes makes an astute observation based on yesterday's observed weather in the area:
“Why was the flight taken? The clouds over Manhattan had bases in the 1700- to 2000-foot range. Winds were at 17 knots, gusting to 22 knots. It's certainly possible to fly safely in such conditions, but it takes more concentration. Now add to it the fact that Lidle and his instructor were flying in one of busiest and most constricted airspaces in the world. Even more concentration is needed. Your cup is probably full at this point, even with an instructor aboard. You have no margin for error if anything goes awry.”
That's exactly it. Assuming Lidle and his instructor were making that demanding U-turn, a ~20 knot westerly crosswind would have pushed any standard turn radius out quite a bit further because the plane is making the same turn it normally does, but within a moving air mass. The "highway in the sky" is invisibly shifting toward Manhattan, and as tight as things are in that corridor, the margin for error gets slimmer still in gusty weather. Add a low cloud deck and the maneuver box compresses to test pilot dimensions.