It’s hard not to draw parallels between the crash of a Panamanian helicopter into the jungle in poor visual conditions with that of the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight others that crashed in the mountains of Southern California in January 2020.
The biggest difference is that in this case, there were no fatalities. In the California crash, retired basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, his teenage daughter Gianna, and seven others including the pilot, perished when the Sikorsky S76B they were flying in flew into instrument conditions, went out of control and crashed unsurvivably at high speed into terrain below.
In this case, everyone survived, albeit with numerous serious injuries. An independent candidate for the Panamanian 2024 elections, Dimitri Flores, was one of six passengers who survived a helicopter crash landing in the inhospitable terrain and thick vegetation of the Panama jungle, and the pilot’s actions are under the microscope as other pilots watched the video, which shows the pilot continuing marginal VFR over a ridge, at which point all visual reference ahead seems to be lost in cloud.
Perhaps the most amazing part is that the entire crash sequence was captured on video, which you have to see to believe here.
As most helicopter pilots will tell you, in an almost bragging fashion, helicopters are inherently unstable. That’s what makes them so maneuverable. It’s also why most helicopter pilots will do anything they can to avoid VFR-into-IFR conditions. When visual references are lost, the pilot is forced to switch to flying by instruments, which is hard enough. But in this case, the helicopter was essentially flying with the terrain at or above the aircraft’s altitude, a fact that ratchets up risk enormously.
According to Mr. Flores, the first to pinpoint the crash site were locals instead of the Panama National Aeronaval Service, and even after that, it took more than three hours by foot for the Panamanian first responders to reach the victims of the crash even after helicopters flew over the crash site multiple times.
However, with no fatalities and an outcome that could have been much worse, it’s an ending that everyone onboard is likely very grateful for.