The Same Mistake Over and Over

This is too soon after an accident to say for sure what caused it. But I can talk about accidents in general and probably answer a few questions. And, because of the technological advances we have made in the last few decades, we already (just hours after) know a lot more about the accident that killed Kobe Bryant (and the other passengers, including his daughter) than we will ever know about, for instance, the accident that killed Otis Redding.

N72EX was a Sikorsky 76-B helicopter. That’s a very serious machine. Jet engines, two of them, fourteen seats, capable of Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight into Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). Retractable landing gear, four-bladed main rotor, and, arguably, evolutionarily ahead of the helicopter that became the Blackhawk. It cruises at 150 knots, about what our little four seater airplane does.

It has an autopilot, which means that at a touch of a button the pilot can manage systems rather than focus entirely on flying. That’s critical for IFR flight, since you might need to write something down that the controller is telling you. You can pick one up for a million dollars, but the real cost is in running them. (I have learned something new since writing this post: the helicopter in question required two pilots in order to be flown IFR. There was only one on board. I suppose one could argue that he should have filed without the required second pilot (he did have an autopilot on board), but that would probably be a pilot deviation and the sort of thing which could end your flying career. So his only real option was to land, and a lot of people have pointed out that the pressure to get there no matter what is huge with the wealthy client on board telling you he’s headed to his daughter’s basketball game.)

Kobe was buying time. Reports I read said he was getting headed to a basketball game his daughter was playing in. The drive from Orange County up to Camarillo is at least two hours. Probably quite a bit more at the time they were trying to make the trip. It is less than half that in the chopper.

As the helicopter headed up the coast, cutting inland and starting to turn west near Burbank, it was stopped by the controller airspace of the Burbank airport. That’s the audio which you can listen to on the YouTube clip. ATC channels are now often captured to the Internet and when an accident happens there are Internet sleuths who hop on to check the recordings around that time. (I used those recordings when I lost my friend Art Newman and wanted to understand what had happened during his last flight.)

Although SoCal is blue skies and seventy-two degrees almost all of the time, there is the occasional marine layer. And sometimes even a few clouds. That’s what N72EX was encountering around the edges of the Burbank airspace. Normally a helicopter could fly alongside the Class Charlie airspace of Burbank, slipping under a shelf of it and along the north side of the Hollywood Hills, but the pilot was instead north of that path and wanted to fly east-to-west through the Burbank airspace. The tower controller delayed him.

Unlike airplanes, altitude is not a helicopter’s friend. If something mechanical goes wrong with the tail rotor the pilot has a short window to get the aircraft onto the ground before it spins out of control. If engine power is lost entirely the pilot can autorotate the helicopter down to the ground (imagine those little leaves you played with as a kid, which spin softly down to earth). But helicopters spend their time below a thousand feet, or if they are on a longer trip, between a thousand and two thousand feet.

It’s actually the wonderful thing about helicopters. They are much more like a bird flying than an airplane is. They can slow down, turn, stop, and even fly backwards and sideways if they need to. One of the few times we were unable to land at the Santa Monica airport due to weather I asked the Van Nuys tower if they knew of any airplanes getting in there. She said, “No, and I just had a police helicopter go over and look and they came right back over the hill.” So they can sneak along next to the clouds or fog, and just rotate in place and come back the way they came if necessary.

Listening to the tower controller at Van Nuys, the next airport to the west, she says that the cloud ceiling is 1,100 feet, which is measured from the ground. The Van Nuys airport is at 800 MSL, so the clouds sit at an altitude of 1,900 MSL. The pilot reports that as his altitude. as 1,400 feet. So he’s still VFR at that point. Clouds are tricky and there’s no way to know what the difference is between where the airport’s sensor array is and where the helicopter is. I’m often debating cloud clearances with Adam when we are flying around Seattle. Clouds can be wispy, ill-defined and are often in motion. They even react to your passage, so there’s some Schrodinger’s Cat stuff going on.

But it is safe to say that the helicopter pilot was taking advantage of it being a helicopter: able to get closer to the ground, slip under the overcast layer, and point in any direction it needed to in order to continue the flight.

After making it past Van Nuys the pilot switches to a SoCal frequency and drops the assigned transponder code, switching back to a code of 1200, meaning “I’m flying by Visual Flight Rules.” That suggests he knows that he is too low to get radar coverage, so the controllers can’t help him avoid traffic (or terrain; a controller will warn you about terrain along your route of flight). The SoCal controller tries to find out if the pilot wants “flight following,” and we can’t hear the pilot’s side of the conversation and soon after radar coverage is lost and the helicopter has flown into the side of a hill.

CFIT. Controlled Flight Into Terrain. It is yet another category of accident that falls into the very broad pie slice which is “pilot error.” The NTSB will tell us in a year or so if there were other contributing factors, like an inoperative autopilot (that might discourage me from flying the helicopter single-pilot IFR). But it was the pilot’s decision to continue the flight when they could have landed at Burbank and told Mr. Bryant and his guests to find some Ubers.

If you are curious what that would have looked like, there is video of a similar flight. A jet fighter trainer (L-39) with a chase plane (Beechcraft Bonanza) took off from the Van Nuys airport and flew north toward the central valley. the clouds were lower than they anticipated (just like with the helicopter pilot), and they came close to doing the same thing. How close? Watch all the way to the end of the video. (From what I know, the pilot lost their certificate over this incident, which is better than losing your life and killing three other people).

People were posting video soon after of a different helicopter crash. I don’t think anyone could get video of this one (except possibly a passenger onboard, which I guess is likely in this day and age). Here is a witness who is very precise about what he heard just before the crash. He was nearby and is a sound engineer:

I fly around the very same landscape all the time. Hundreds of flights over that same set of hills where those people sadly lost their lives. My rule is simple: if the clouds are within five hundred feet of the top of the Santa Monica Mountains then my moving map has the terrain shading turned on. That means that at a glance I can see if the terrain I’m flying toward is within a hundred feet of my altitude or above (bright red). I don’t even like when it is yellow (500 to 100 feet below my altitude). And, the truth is, if it is marginal like that, I get an instrument clearance and fly up IFR under positive control of the air traffic control system.

Better safe than sorry. (At that same time the Los Angeles Police had decided the weather was not good enough for their helicopters to fly around the Los Angeles basin.)

(For the record, I assume the same thing happened to Otis Redding’s plane, although it was Controlled Flight Into Water instead of Terrain. And although we need to wait for the NTSB report to be sure, I am terribly sorry for the lives lost today, which I feel were lost needlessly.)

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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