My friend, Roger, lives in Calabasas, California a mile and half from where Kobe Bryant and eight others died in a helicopter crash last Sunday. There’s a trail there, on the ocean side of the Santa Monica mountains, that we have hiked together.
Helicopter Debris Field
The world continues in a state of shock at the loss of Kobe, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and two other families with girls that were members of Gianna’s youth basketball team. At Staples Center, often referred to as “the house that Kobe built” the mourners outside numbered more than the crowd inside at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards – but all were subdued and grieving the loss of their larger than life 41-year-old basketball hero.
The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is investigating but in the opinion of most aviation experts Kobe’s helicopter was flown into the ground or in the words of investigators “controlled flight into terrain.” There is little doubt that the accident was due to a combination of weather and pilot error (poor judgment and disorientation). I’m not helicopter rated nor am I a certified investigator, but as a former military and commercial pilot I have an informed opinion about what happened and feel heartsick about an accident I think could have been prevented. We won’t know the details for some time. The NTSB does a thorough job, and despite the fact that the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter had neither voice nor flight recorder (required on all commercial aircraft) it won’t be hard to determine the causes.
On Sunday morning, weather in the LA Basin included low clouds and limited visibility. Conditions were sufficiently compromised that all LA Police and LA County Sheriff helicopters were grounded. Nevertheless, operating under VFR (Visual Flight Rules), Kobe’s pilot took off from Long Beach Airport where the helicopter was kept and flew to Orange County Airport where his passengers were waiting. Flying VFR, he used visual references and remained clear of all clouds. All normal and acceptable.
This was where judgment came into the equation. Kobe was a strong charismatic personality, used to getting what he wanted or needed. He owned or leased the helicopter and frequently used it to commute to Staples Center and other locations in the LA Basin. The youth basketball game Gianna’s team was scheduled to play was in Thousand Oaks 82 miles from his home in Newport Beach (2hrs and 45 min by car according to Google Maps), but normally less than an hour by helicopter.
It’s difficult to reconstruct the conversations and decisions that took place when Ara Zobayan, the pilot, and Kobe conferred on the tarmac at Orange County Airport, but several possibilities present themselves:
- Captain Zobayan could have briefed Kobe on the weather and advised him to cancel the trip. (safest alternative)
- He could have suggested they takeoff and make a decision enroute, hoping the weather would clear before they had to turn back. This could be risky, because they might get boxed in if the clouds and fog remained and turning around in mountainous terrain and low visibility is dangerous. (but still a legitimate alternative)
- He might have suggested they file an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan but in this instance, even though the helicopter was instrument capable and the pilot instrument qualified – the FAA had not certified this company to fly its helicopters IFR. (FAA violation)
- He could have assured Kobe that this weather was not unusual in the LA Basin and they should proceed normally (overconfident)
- Captain Zobayan, an employee, probably felt pressure to do what the boss wanted. (normal)
- Kobe might have told his pilot that his daughter and her friends would be disappointed if they had to cancel and couldn’t play. (emotional)
- Kobe might have pointed out that the team would have to cancel without the three girls. (guilty)
- Kobe might have felt responsible for getting the other families to the game. After all, he had invited them to fly with him. (responsible)
- Kobe might have consulted with the other families about proceeding and asked them to help with the decision. (possible)
We don’t know what the interactions were between Kobe and his pilot, but I know what pressure feels like under similar circumstances. As a Pan Am co-pilot, I remember a cargo flight from Guam to San Francisco where the preflight paperwork showed the aircraft weight and balance outside of normal limits. The other three cockpit crew members were anxious to get home. They were willing to take the aircraft despite the calculations. I objected and the flight was rerouted through Honolulu which meant we had to layover in HNL and our return to SFO would be delayed by a day. On the flight to HNL I was shunned by the other three who refused to talk to me – in spite of the fact that there had been three fatal pilot error accidents by SFO crews in recent years. Decisions are sometimes made for personal reasons that conflict with good judgment. Often there is no harm, but in this case nine lives were lost.
Kobe’s helicopter had dual controls and could accommodate a second pilot. Under the circumstances a second pilot might have prevented the accident. Four eyes are better than two, but though a second set of eyes might have helped, flying IFR violated the company’s certification. This S-76 was not approved for instrument flight. The pilot was required to fly only in visual flight conditions… but of course we know he didn’t. He got boxed in by a lowering ceiling and hills he tried to climb over.
I’m touched by the loss of Kobe, his daughter and their friends. The accident was preventable. It shouldn’t have happened but sometimes, in the moment, because we are human we act emotionally. As a pilot I was guilty of bad judgment at times – but without serious consequences. We know Kobe was very involved with and proud of his daughter who was following his footsteps and carrying on his basketball legacy. We know he wouldn’t have done anything to harm her or their friends. But, we are all human… with needs and desires that often cloud our judgment. The same holds true for the pilot. I’m sure he was capable in ordinary circumstances and most likely capable in difficult conditions, but like my own Guam to San Francisco flight there were other considerations clouding his judgment.
Kobe was just beginning a new phase in his remarkable life. We can only hope that his family and friends will carry on his good works and legacy.
RIP Kobe et al