Despite the fact that the United States Senate was conducting an impeachment trial of President Trump, the most newsworthy event of the past weekend was the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash in southern California. The news of the crash that killed eight people in addition to Bryant reverberated from the California hills where the crash occurred over the valleys of central Pennsylvania to the eastern seaboard. The crash appears to have been the result of dense fog at a low altitude and the decision of the copter pilot to challenge these dangerous flying conditions.
The original flight plan indicated that the helicopter left John Wayne Airport south of Los Angeles and that its destination was Bryant’s youth camp in Thousand Oaks north of Los Angeles. The helicopter ran into unexpected and very dense fog as it approach the hills north of Los Angeles. When the fog thickened and reduced visibility to less than three miles and the operating ceiling to less than 2,500 feet, the pilot requested permission to switch to “special visual flight rules” (VFR) at altitudes lower than 2,500 feet. The tower at the Burbank airport gave the pilot the necessary permission, and the pilot said that he would operate on special VFR for the remainder of the flight. Special VFR requires the pilot to maintain visual contact with the ground at all altitudes less than 2,500 feet.
Radar records show the helicopter began a sharp ascent minutes before it crashed into a hillside. The exact reason for the ascent is unknown, but experts analyzing the flight said that the pilot may have been trying to obtain line-of-sight views from nearby air traffic controllers. The helicopter was also hemmed in by a low ceiling and the rising hills ahead of it. Experts also speculated that flight controllers in the area were too busy to provide detailed observation of Bryant’s copter. Another question raised by investigators is whether the pilot was sufficiently rested before beginning the flight. Possible pilot incapacitation from drugs or alcohol will also be examined.
The investigation of the accident will be hampered by the lack of a flight data recorder, the familiar “black box.” Investigators will attempt to separate human error from mechanical failure in reconstructing the crash. If the investigation reveals human error as the principal cause, the families of the persons killed in the crash may have claims for wrongful death against the pilot, mechanics and the owners of the helicopter. Mechanical failure may implicate the manufacturer of the helicopter.
A common refrain from aviation experts is that the lessons from this accident will be carefully studied by the flying community to reduce the risk of future accidents from the same or similar causes. Given the hilly terrain of central Pennsylvania and the state’s uncertain weather, those lessons will have special relevance for pilots in State College and Centre County.