Aviation Expert on New York City Crash

When a small aircraft crashed into a 50-story Manhattan apartment tower Wednesday afternoon, city residents were initially fearful of a terrorist attack. But small-aircraft accidents are a weekly occurrence at various locations throughout the country. NEWSWEEK’s Julie Scelfo spoke with Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University to learn more. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How frequently do small plane crashes happen?

Paul Czysz: Flying magazine will list all of the crashes that month and you might see five or six crashes every month. Usually, they’re not crashes into buildings. Instead, it’s weather, or landing and takeoff, or crashing into unfamiliar terrain.

In what kinds of small planes do they usually occur?

They’re more common in general-aviation airplanes than they are with commercial airplanes because if it’s really a general-aviation airplane that is privately owned, the [pilot] doesn’t fly it as frequently as a commercial pilot. They lose piloting skills because of inactivity, like John F. Kennedy Jr. who lost his way, became disoriented because of a lack of piloting experience, or Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan and his son [who were killed] in St. Louis [in 2000]. His son was flying, and he had very limited severe-weather experience, whereas a commercial pilot might have that experience three or four times a month.

What are the usual causes?

The leading cause is disorientation, like the young Kennedy, where you’re flying and lose the horizon and can’t tell whether your plane is flying straight level or diving or rolling. You fly by the seat of your pants where you go into what is literally called a death spiral, where the plane spirals right down to the ground. And the pilot thinks he’s flying straight and level. The next leading cause is takeoff and landing. After that, the next cause would be a problem with the engine.

Has a plane ever hit an apartment building before?

There was one just south of Kansas City a couple of years ago where the pilot was trying to make an emergency landing at a regional airport, but instead of approaching the runway, he approached the lights on the apartment building.

Where are crashes most likely to happen?

They can happen in flight, en route, they can happen in takeoff. A. Scott Crossfield, a pilot who flew experimental airplanes out of [the] NASA Dryden [Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif.], was killed this year in a small-plane crash. I knew Scotty, you were talking about a pilot who can fly an airplane blindfolded, except when you hit a class 5 thunderstorm and it just disorients you so badly, it can knock you out. This is a guy who knows better, but was just caught unprepared.

So what does the FAA typically do in a situation like this?

For a light-airplane crash, normally they’ll send in a ground team. They have these teams on call around the United States, they have their bags packed so within an hour or so they’re on their way to the crash site. They will start investigating—do we know what the airplane was, do we have a flight plan, tons of questions. There was some wreckage that fell off the building, they will immediately cordon it off and have a recovery team in and just like [on TV show] “CSI,” bag everything, make a note of it, and reconstruct it somewhere back at a hanger. [In Wednesday’s New York City crash] it looked like a few apartments were on fire. That could mean a lot of instruments in there might be damaged beyond usefulness. If it’s just a private airplane like a Cessna, they’re not required to carry in-flight recorders. You just have to start working backwards.

Didn’t a plane once hit the Empire State Building?

That was a B-25, back in World War II days. It was foggy, and the ceiling—the bottom of the clouds—was below the top of the Empire State Building, and they just didn’t know where they were again.

Any hunch on what happened Wednesday?

It’s hard to say because first of all, as a caveat in all of the instructions pilots have, is to avoid congested areas, radio towers, tall buildings and to stay away from those because those can get you into trouble. He was either disoriented or something happened to the airplane, or he could have had a heart attack. All kinds of things could have happened.

It was just reported that the plane was owned and may have been flown by New York Yankees Pitcher Cory Lidle.

Again, the question here is, how often does he fly?