With the mammoth celebration of Kobe Bryant’s life in the history books, the hard questions about the crash that killed nine last month in Calabasas, California, are here. The memorial to Bryant and the others who lost their lives in the crash took place on Monday in downtown L.A. The event was attended by the biggest stars in the sport and some of the biggest stars in the world, from Beyonce to Shaquille O’Neal, all of whom were there to pay their respects to the retired basketball player and to the eight other victims, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
As new information surrounding the crash has come to light, it has become increasingly clear that the mishap was a result of a killer as old as aviation, continued VFR into IMC, that is for the non-pilots out there, continued flight by visual reference in clouds that obscure the outside world to the pilot.
And as details emerge, it has become almost clear that for the final, horrifying moments of the flight, the pilot, Ara Zobayan, had lost control of the helicopter, at which point the fates of all aboard were sealed.
1. How charter flights are flown. For non-pilots what happened seems unthinkable. How could a helicopter flown by a professional pilot crash under any circumstances, let alone on a short flight with relatively benign weather? Most pilots, on the other hand, know that given the details of the weather, terrain and piloting decisions, the risk to the flight was enormous and the outcome, tragically predictable. The traveling public thinks that charter flights are flown under the most stringent regulations, but they are not. Because many of the airports that charter flights go to are not served by airlines, and because pilots fly to hundreds of different airports—many of them a single time—there’s little standardization. And as we’ve come to learn, just about every helicopter flight in the Los Angeles basin is flown under visual rules. So we have an answer for one of our early questions: Why didn’t Zobayan just ask for an IFR clearance? He wasn’t allowed to; the mission was strictly VFR.
2. Keeping control of the aircraft in the clouds is not easy. For those of us who regularly fly IFR, the loss of control by the pilot is hard to fathom, until we think about it. While non-pilots regard control of the aircraft as automatic, in maneuvering VFR flight, it is anything but. Pilots under these circumstances have their hands full, and then some. They need to keep track of where they are, where the high terrain is, and they need to keep the aircraft from banking too sharply, which aircraft can do all too easily, which can very quickly lead to a catastrophic loss of control.
3. Pilots cheat. One of the big news stories last week was that Zobayan had previously been cited for flying in conditions of visibility too low for VFR flight. Since the conditions the flight encounters are not known to ground controllers, it’s not hard for pilots to cheat and say that conditions are VFR, even when they are not. It was in 2015, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times, when Zobayan, flying a different model of helicopter, encountered low weather conditions near LAX. He asked for a Special VFR Clearance, and when the tower at LAX declined the request, Zobayan claimed he was in VFR conditions and proceeded. The FAA disciplined the pilot for the deviation from the rules. While the NTSB statement of probable cause is still months away, investigators will be looking to see if Zobayan bent rules in this case, wandering into conditions of essentially zero visibility, which he was ill-prepared to deal with.
Subscribe today to Plane & Pilot magazine for industry news, reviews and much more delivered straight to you!