Pilot: The mystery of Kobe Bryant's chopper crash

Article Image

Basketball star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were headed to a basketball game Sunday afternoon when they were killed in a helicopter crash.

Posted: Jan 28, 2020 4:40 PM
Updated: Jan 28, 2020 4:40 PM

What caused the chopper that was carrying Kobe Bryant and eight others to crash on Sunday?

At around 9:45 a.m. (12 p.m. ET) on a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter was lost against a hillside near the town of Calabasas, California, about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles. We are now painfully aware that the aircraft was carrying nine people that included Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter.

National Transportation Safety Board officials were on the site Sunday to begin their investigation, and like them, we will have to be patient and wait to learn what caused this disaster. In the meantime, I'll try to shed a little light here about factors to consider.

This particular helicopter was manufactured in 1991 and is owned and operated by what appears to be a well-established charter operation. (The company, Island Express Helicopters released a statement that said, in part, that the pilot, "Ara Zobayan, was our chief pilot. Ara has been with the company for over 10 years and has over 8,000 flight hours. We are working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate the cause of the accident and we are grateful to the first responders and local authorities for their response to this unimaginable accident.") It is a sophisticated piece of machinery designed as the commercial version of the military Black Hawk. The helicopter is far more advanced than, say, the type seen on the opening intro of the 70s TV show M*A*S*H.

Two Pratt and Whitney turbo shaft engines power the large, main rotor and the tail rotor. In other words, two small jet engines operate in unison to supply power to the gearbox that turns the helicopter's blades, making it a very reliable system.

The Sikorsky departed the John Wayne, Orange County Airport northbound toward Van Nuys Airport. Reports from the Aviation Weather Chart Archive indicate that the weather at departure was overcast, with a cloud ceiling of 1,000 feet and a visibility of four miles. Although conditions would be considered marginal but legal for fixed wing aircraft -- the kind I have mainly flown for decades -- operating under the visual flight rules set by the Federal Aviation Administration, a helicopter has lower requirements because of its greater maneuverability; it can slow its forward speed to a virtual crawl and hover.

So, the weather conditions were not unusual for a helicopter pilot to fly in, nor were they unsafe at the departure airport.

Yes, both the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff's department apparently grounded their own choppers, most likely because their flying policies are more restrictive than a charter helicopter operator (law enforcement flying is often more challenging than just a commercial flight from A to B).

In the case of the doomed helicopter, it would appear that as the flight approached the Van Nuys Airport, following Interstate 5, the visibility was becoming more restrictive. Because of the reduced visibility and the resulting air traffic control requirements for separation between aircraft, the helicopter was asked to remain clear of the airport's airspace while another airplane was completing a procedure. The Sikorsky's pilot circled in a visual holding pattern for approximately 12 minutes, according to tracking data.

After the helicopter was released from the holding pattern, the aircraft was given a clearance to follow Interstate 5 and then follow Freeway 101. The pilot's communication with air traffic control was professional and without any noticeable stress. After over four decades of experience listening to airborne communications, my opinion is that the pilot's responses and tone reflected his familiarity with the routine. You can hear it here.

All that said, the flight was approaching rising terrain with reduced visibility. In-flight visibility is often less than the horizontal visibility reported on the ground because the thickness of clouds generally increases with altitude. In other words, it can be harder for pilots to see through the clouds in front of them at the higher altitude than controllers might think, from their position on the ground.

If the pilot remains over a road on his or her route to Point B, terrain shouldn't be a major issue because a highway cuts through or goes around hills and obstacles, so the path is clear. But even pilots experienced with a particular route can become disoriented in reduced visibility conditions. If you've driven the car home on a foggy day, you understand. Perhaps the helicopter pilot deviated only for a moment away from the highway and encountered rising terrain without time to correct, and struck the hillside.

The tracking data in the last 15 seconds of the flight indicates that the helicopter was in a rapid descent, accompanied by a rapid increase in airspeed. The increase in airspeed is analogous to pedaling a bicycle downhill. It's possible that the data indicates the pilot made a diving turn away from terrain at the last minute. Investigators will look at everything including whether there was a mechanical abnormality that distracted the pilot, or caused the helicopter to deviate from a safe flight path.

Regardless, the evidence of a relatively large debris field with relatively small pieces of the aircraft scattered at the crash site indicates the helicopter hit the ground at a high rate of speed. Even if a helicopter experiences an engine failure, pilots use a well-practiced maneuver called "autorotation," where the rotor blades spin using only aerodynamic forces, allowing the aircraft to touchdown at a survivable rate of vertical speed. So, the debris field is an indication that something went terribly wrong.

The NTSB will be conducting a thorough investigation with their focus on items such as, the helicopter maintenance record, weather data, air traffic control operation, aircraft weight and balance, pilot experience, pilot duty times, and pilot toxicology.

Like all aviation accidents, this is an awful tragedy. This investigation may take upwards of a year to find a probable cause, which may involve multiple factors. With this crash being high profile, the investigator in charge will most likely reveal additional information within the coming days. Stay tuned and be patient.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1097128

Reported Deaths: 17438
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1437882222
Lake712531225
Allen65537867
Hamilton50147482
St. Joseph48760639
Elkhart39461538
Vanderburgh34221495
Tippecanoe30237271
Johnson27179463
Hendricks25845379
Porter25014381
Madison20656444
Clark19898275
Vigo18764308
LaPorte16857260
Delaware16425291
Howard16408311
Monroe16379217
Kosciusko13936163
Hancock12841185
Bartholomew12686188
Warrick11995189
Wayne11879265
Floyd11869225
Grant11701235
Morgan10252188
Boone9675120
Noble9069121
Henry9002165
Marshall8907146
Dearborn881799
Dubois8710139
Shelby8054128
Cass8014127
Lawrence7922182
DeKalb7591106
Huntington7448108
Jackson743893
Gibson7002118
Montgomery6910123
Harrison685296
Knox6827113
Steuben654186
Miami6477107
Whitley642260
Putnam631982
Clinton618976
Wabash6060108
Jasper601791
Jefferson5689103
Ripley549192
Adams532381
Daviess5003116
Scott480378
Wells471799
White468767
Greene461799
Clay457462
Decatur4529109
Jennings439666
Fayette435694
LaGrange419290
Posey403244
Washington384154
Randolph3818107
Fountain368362
Spencer355846
Fulton355572
Starke348772
Owen346276
Sullivan344954
Orange324470
Jay318650
Rush298332
Carroll289438
Franklin286744
Perry283253
Vermillion280458
Tipton247365
Parke246330
Pike244144
Blackford218044
Pulaski205658
Newton179052
Brown171850
Crawford167929
Benton163217
Martin150819
Switzerland145112
Warren132216
Union117816
Ohio91413
Unassigned0585

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1683472

Reported Deaths: 26483
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1766331826
Cuyahoga1641462636
Hamilton1122641528
Montgomery794721387
Summit702171199
Lucas618431017
Butler55878803
Stark525841170
Lorain41058639
Warren35404412
Mahoning35095769
Lake31445493
Clermont30711362
Delaware26682182
Trumbull26664611
Licking26200335
Medina25291351
Fairfield24173287
Greene24051369
Clark21653387
Portage20709280
Richland20587336
Wood19626246
Allen18542320
Miami17031348
Columbiana16502331
Muskingum16416206
Wayne15432304
Tuscarawas14086357
Marion13054194
Erie12423198
Ashtabula12314225
Scioto12235182
Pickaway12070151
Ross11487223
Hancock11256173
Geauga10666174
Lawrence10504171
Belmont10259231
Huron9588155
Jefferson9462225
Union939175
Sandusky9068166
Seneca8692156
Knox8618169
Washington8613156
Athens827396
Darke8270179
Ashland7840147
Auglaize7741115
Shelby7337132
Defiance7210114
Crawford7082150
Brown7052115
Fulton7016111
Logan6857108
Mercer681697
Guernsey680283
Highland6615117
Madison641389
Clinton6388106
Williams628798
Preble6171139
Putnam6089120
Jackson572396
Champaign568286
Perry558879
Coshocton5552103
Ottawa553599
Morrow506464
Fayette483170
Hardin477899
Gallia462978
Pike459076
Van Wert454691
Adams4514109
Henry424976
Hocking401493
Holmes3939137
Wyandot367973
Carroll351578
Paulding319349
Meigs302457
Monroe231860
Noble216447
Morgan210138
Harrison205152
Vinton183937
Unassigned05
Fort Wayne
Partly Cloudy
27° wxIcon
Hi: 50° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 27°
Angola
Clear
27° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 28°
Feels Like: 27°
Huntington
Partly Cloudy
27° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 27°
Decatur
Partly Cloudy
27° wxIcon
Hi: 50° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 27°
Van Wert
Clear
32° wxIcon
Hi: 49° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 25°
The warming trend is expected to continue through Thursday before cooler air returns to the Midwest.
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events