Pilots and athletes: the 'adventure' factor

A sense of adventure and a dose of self-confidence make piloting a natural for athletes such as Cory Lidle.

Originally Published: October 12, 2006
By John Helyar | ESPN.com

Had he played a different game, Cory Lidle might not have been in the plane that crashed into a high-rise in New York City on Wednesday. In some professional sports, athletes are barred from being pilots. The NBA's uniform player contract, for example, expressly forbids "operating an aircraft."

But in other sports, by contrast, athletes routinely double as pilots. Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle all fly themselves around the Nextel Cup circuit.

In either event, the very qualities that drive a player to the elite levels of sports can also drive him into the skies: a huge appetite for adventure and a huge dollop of self-confidence.

Although Lidle's death might give fellow athlete flyboys pause, sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn doubts it will ground them. It isn't in the nature of the beast.

"Athletes are aggressive," he says. "They're risk-takers, and they have a real feeling of invincibility. That's what separates them from other people, and you can't take that away."

Lidle's last contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, which expired at the end of the regular season, was designed to discourage his passion for aviation. It included a provision terminating the club's payment obligations on the two-year, $6.5 million deal if he was hurt "piloting or learning to operate or serving as the member of a crew of any aircraft." While just one in a long list of contract-voiding stipulations that are standard on the Phillies' guaranteed contracts, club spokeswoman Leigh Tobin says, "They made him very aware of that."

If it is ultimately found that Lidle was piloting the plane in the crash that killed him (investigators are still trying to determine who was at the controls), a clause in the baseball union's benefit plan might keep his beneficiaries from collecting on a $1.5 million payout. An exclusion in the plan eliminates a life insurance benefit and an accidental death benefit for "any incident related to travel in an aircraft while acting in any capacity other than as a passenger."

Still, Lidle was so taken with flying and so sure of his skills that when writer and friend Alan Schwarz declined an invitation to join him for a flight over the East River, the pitcher mocked his evident fear of small planes.

"The kind of plane I have will be safer than the cars on the FDR Drive below us," he told Schwarz, who recalled the eerie conversation for ESPN.com.

Lidle's enthusiasm and confidence were understandable. Aviation expert Michael Maya Charles says athletes often have both an affinity and aptitude for flying, because, like the games they play, it's a challenge requiring both physical and mental skills -- and it's a whole new vista to conquer.

But Lidle might also have been typical of people who are accomplished in one profession, then enter and embrace aviation, according to Charles, a commercial pilot, flight instructor and author of the book "Artful Flying."

"These are super-ego people," he says. "They know they have done very well in a field, and they take that to the next thing they attempt. They expect immediate expertise, and they don't necessarily have it.

Small, sleek planes such as the Cirrus SR20 that Lidle was flying on Wednesday have higher crash risks than bigger planes, according to aviation-safety expert Michael Boyd -- not because there's anything wrong with the aircraft, but because the smaller planes primarily are flown by less experienced pilots like Lidle.

"It's a hobbyist airplane, so you can expect higher accident rates," the Evergreen, Colo., consultant said.

In a sense, there's nothing new in Lidle's tragic end, beyond its spectacular and horrific nature. Athletes have risked their careers on many avocations besides aviation. In August, Ben Roethlisberger's love of motorcycles landed the Steelers' quarterback on a street and in a hospital in Pittsburgh. And athletes have lost their lives in many other "what on earth was he thinking" ways. In January of 2000, for example, the NBA's Bobby Phills died during a drag race with his Charlotte Hornets teammate David Wesley.

Indeed, it isn't as if Lidle was part of a huge new trend toward professional team-sport athletes becoming pilots. It's still a short list, though it includes some notables such as the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and the Montreal Canadiens' Alexei Kovalev. The uniform players contract in MLB, per the collective bargaining agreement, sticks to a pretty traditional list of off-limits activities: skiing, skin diving, football, soccer, ice hockey, auto racing, motorcycle racing, and professional boxing, wrestling and basketball.

But Lidle symbolizes something that is different for today's athletes, according to Llewellyn.

"Money has enabled them to take more risks; it's enabled them to do things they couldn't before," he says. "They can go out and buy a jet for $5 million."

Get beyond the team games, moreover, and pilot-athletes are more the norm in some sports. NASCAR's Biffle flies a helicopter to make quick getaways from a race, and then flies a plane to the next track. This has the twin virtues of being efficient and peaceful, he told Private Air magazine: "It kind of takes your mind off everything, and it's fun to do."

Hopping from stock car to cockpit seems a natural extension of the Nextel Cup skill set -- yet still hazardous. Driver Davey Allison died in 1993 after a helicopter he was piloting crashed on the infield at Talladega Superspeedway. Jack Rousch, a team owner, barely survived a crash in 2002, when a plane he was flying went down.

The difference is that NASCAR drivers and another significant category of pilot-athletes -- PGA Tour golfers -- become far more accomplished flyers than hobbyists such as Lidle, after they've hopscotched around the country for years. Bobby Clampett has logged 4,000 hours in the air over 19 years as a player and now TV commentator.

"I look on it as another profession," he says. "I feel extremely safe."

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."

John Helyar

Sports Business
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."