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Aircraft's easy access leaves some uneasy

Few rules govern small planes flying in New York. Wednesday's crash makes some ask: Is that a good idea?

By TIMES WIRES
Published October 13, 2006


NEW YORK - The fiery plane crash that killed Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle didn't have any link to terrorism, but it did leave many people asking a pointed, terrorism-tinged question.

How is it that, five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, small aircraft are still allowed to fly right up next to the New York skyline?

The single-engine plane that carried Lidle to his death was flying over the East River, which separates Manhattan from Brooklyn and Queens and is lined on the Manhattan side by the United Nations and scores of other skyscrapers.

It is one of the city's busiest and most popular routes for sightseeing pilots, traffic helicopters and executives hopping from one business deal to the next, and it is largely unmonitored, as long as aircraft stay below 1,100 feet.

"I think everyone is scratching their head, wondering how it is possible that an aircraft can be buzzing around Manhattan," said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who has been lobbying for rule changes since 2004. "It's virtually the Wild West. There is no regulation at all, other than 'Don't run into anything.' "

Gov. George Pataki said Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration "needs to take a much tougher line" about private, or general aviation, flights over the city.

On Thursday, FAA spokeswoman Laura J. Brown said in a written statement Thursday that the agency would review its guidelines for general aviation and flight restrictions as a result of the Lidle crash.

However, FAA spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said small planes and helicopters cannot do much damage if they crash. And an aviation industry representative said Wednesday's crash demonstrates that small private planes have little potential as terrorist weapons.

But what if the plane had carried biological, chemical or nuclear weapons?

Paul McHale, assistant defense secretary for homeland defense, said post-Sept. 11 safeguards are meant to prevent such a scenario before the plane gets airborne.

And generally speaking, small, general aviation aircraft cannot carry big enough loads to create a terrorist threat, said Hans Weber, an aviation safety and security analyst.

New York 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."

New York pilots said the path taken by Lidle's Cirrus SR20 on Wednesday is exhilarating: The plane went down the Hudson River, looped around the Statue of Liberty at the foot of Manhattan, then went up the East River, with the Brooklyn Bridge below and the United Nations on the left.

General aviation aircraft are allowed to go about as far north as Manhattan's 96th Street. There, they must either execute a U-turn to avoid the restricted airspace around LaGuardia Airport, or get permission from air traffic control to climb higher and continue north, or turn west over Central Park.

Lidle's plane slammed into the 30th and 31st stories of a luxury apartment building overlooking the East River, just a short distance from that turnaround point. Radar data indicated that the plane had begun a left turn, a quarter-mile north of the building, just before the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The 1,100-foot ceiling is not necessarily high enough for an off-course pilot to clear some of Manhattan's skyscrapers: The Empire State Building is 1,250 feet, the Chrysler Building 1,046 feet, the Citicorp building 915 feet.

Flight instructor Stanley Ferber of Brooklyn said while the city's airspace is bustling with "a myriad of helicopters and planes," there is much more room than people on the ground realize.

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

Jim Carroll, president of the Paramus Flying Club in New Jersey, said he makes trips low over the East River rarely, because of its "uncomfortably close" proximity to the big Queens airport. Carroll's sightseeing trips over the Hudson take him from the George Washington Bridge to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and include spectacular views of the city.

"I think it is a celebration of the right to be an American," he said. "To take it away would be tremendously disappointing."

Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.