Sat, Oct 14, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Chocks away!

The death of Cory Lidle in an airplane crash this week has turned attention to amateur pilots

By Dana Bartholomew  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

There are roughly 450 air-park communities in the US, places where you can fly your private plane practically up to your front door. The communities have encouraged a growth in the ownership of small aircraft like this Cirrus SR22.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Boots banked his Cessna Cardinal RG a half-kilometer above the sapphire surf of Southern California.

He’d raced motorcycles and flown all over the world. But for this 60-year-old pilot from North Hills, nothing quite matched the view of the zillion-dollar Malibu coast.

“This is why people love to fly,” said Boots, his legal name, over the intercom of one of the smoothest aircraft in the skies.

“Nice. Comfortable. It’s like a privilege — something few people in the world can do.”

The airborne exhilaration that inspired Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle is shared by thousands of amateur pilots at Van Nuys Airport, the nation’s biggest general-aviation airport, and other airfields around the San Fernando Valley.

While aviators concede there is danger to their hobby, regulations have minimized flight hazards over populated areas.

Lidle and a flight instructor died Wednesday when their single-engine plane crashed into a New York City high-rise.

The pitcher had talked often of his love for flying as an escape from professional ball.

“No matter what’s going on in your life, when you get up in that plane, everything’s gone,” Lidle had said in an interview.

At Van Nuys Airport on Thursday, pilots awaited the results of the Lidle crash investigation. They also pointed out the relative safety of general aviation — and their exuberance for flight.

“It’s like driving a car and in most cases even easier, and less dangerous,” said Boots, a certified instructor and top-rated airplane mechanic. “But it takes a great deal more knowledge and ability in case of a problem.

“In a car, it’s simply stop and call for help. In the air, it’s fix it and solve the problem in flight.”

Boots, whose pristine plane bears his cowboy boots logo, learned to fly 25 years ago, having never stepped foot in an airplane.

With an instructor by his side, he had mimicked the dual controls: hand on the yoke, feet on the rudder, eyes on the prop as the engine rumbled to life.

“Your adrenaline’s pumping — I’d never been in an airplane in my life. Trepidation. Man wasn’t meant to fly, he was meant to ride motorcycles,” he recalled.

But man was meant to fly.

And before long the 25-year-old businessman was throttling forward — the Cessna 150’s front wheel lifting off the tarmac — and suddenly airborne at 104kph.

“It’s like magic,” beamed Boots. “For the first time, you’re flying.”

Now, he floats over Lake Balboa, following a turquoise necklace of swimming pools, before tipping his wings over the Hollywood Hills and making his way past Malibu mansions and over Simi Valley before making a perfect landing at Van Nuys Airport.

The US has more than 600,000 pilots, 200,000 aircraft and 19,000 landing facilities, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Last year at Van Nuys Airport, there were 728 aircraft, of which 428 are piston-driven, according to airport officials.

Private planes make up 77 percent of America’s air traffic.

Last year, those pilots and planes were involved in more than 1,600 accidents, down from nearly 2,600 accidents 20 years ago. Last year, crashes killed 557 private pilots and their passengers, plus five people on the ground. In 1986, a total of 967 people were killed.

Last year, 20 commercial airline passengers and crew died in the US.

“There is an ongoing concern about mid-air collisions over the Valley and this area,” said Gerald Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino, which takes an interest in airport issues. “But I wouldn’t think there is an exorbitant fear here because the planes are in FAA radio tower control.”

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