Kobe Bryant Crash: Risk By The Numbers


Basketball star Kobe Bryant was killed in the crash of a chartered Sikorsky S-76B helicopter on Jan. 26, 2020. This high-profile crash, which killed his daughter Gianna and seven others, is causing a re-examination of how Part 135 helicopters are operated. In this video, AVweb’s Paul Bertorelli examines the risks.

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  1. Taken to its end, Equivalent Level of Safety would prohibit human-piloted operations. Keep that in mind.
    “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the very good.”

  2. Paul,
    Please explain how ground proximity warnings would have helped this pilot and the others you mentioned that lost control in the clouds. I think it would have been no more useful for them than it would be for someone jumping off the Empire State Building. Terrain warnings helps prevent Controlled Flight Into Terrain. This aircraft was out of control. The indications needed to get it back into control were already on the instrument panel (and presumably functioning). More distractions would seem to just make the matter worse.

    While I’m griping, when you are reporting on all the coming UAV initiatives please take the time to dwell on the subject of traffic separation from manned aircraft flying below the magic “nobody cares if you are below 400 AGL ” level. Helicopters operate in that region every day and if they are operated for their utility they land or take off from an off airport location once every flight.

    • Isn’t that like saying let’s remove TCAS from the Boeing MAX’s because it had nothing to do with the two crashes?

      Having said this, I’m neutral on TAWS. I am merely cataloging it because the NTSB used the Bryant crash as a lever to mention it had recommended the system as a requirement. It might or might not be part of a suite of equipment and doctrine to reduce helicopter accidents. But as I pointed out in the video, there’s not a lot of low hanging fruit here. The rate is already quite low and it could require a lot of investment to try to lower it without much return on the investment.

      I increasingly believe that developing a safety culture is the biggest factor in all of this.

      • I don’t think so. I’m not suggesting TAWS is a bad thing. I am saying I don’t think it would have done anything to change the outcome in this case. Getting ahead of the NTSB a bit – This helicopter was flow in low visibility “successfully”, they did not hit any obstacles. The problems started when they entered the clouds and the pilot was unable to keep control of the machine. Once control was lost it is doubtful that a box complaining about or diagramming rock formations would have been helpful. I’d argue, and the NTSB did also in the MAX cases, that all the boxes screaming might be consuming important decision making capacity at a time when the pilot needs all they have.
        By mentioning TAWS without discussing its unlikely impact in this case you leave less knowledgeable people to conclude it would have made all the difference. I worry doing so leads to things like the 1500 hr rule based on an accident with a 3357 hr pilot and 2244 hr first officer that media heralded as the solution to the problem.

  3. Equivalent level of safety sounds simple, but is very complicated, especially when the groups being compared are basically apples and oranges. Part 121 and 135 helicopter operations are radically different. Trying to make one function at the same level of safety as the other is mission impossible. However, when celebrities are involved, the public gets very emotional, which prompts Congress to do something, whether it makes sense or not. News reports have latched onto the idea that ground proximity warning would have somehow saved the day. So, the public is now convinced that GPW should be required in anything that leaves the ground. Those who understand the situation know better, but the chorus of “DO SOMETHING” drowns out reasoned discussion. The sad truth is that if Kobe and his daughter were not involved and the seven other relatively obscure people were the only casualties, this story would have died within a couple news cycles. Sad, but true.

    • Conversely, John, I wonder what part of the obvious get-there-it is involved in this accident was precipitated by the VIP/customer telling the pilot to “get me there?”

  4. I appreciate all the comments on how “tech would have saved the day.”

    But isn’t the Kobe accident just an age-old “scud-running”, inadvertent VMC-into-IMC, CFIT tragedy?

    Hey, I’m not pointing fingers, because back in my “young and dumb” days, I’d fly in any conditions over 1000 and 3, which green-and-starving instructors considered “severe clear” — especially when the boss said “I have an intro flight I want you to take.”

    My point is that “tech” isn’t the silver bullet or panacea the great unwashed masses (Congress?) think they are.

    I’ll try to not sound like a “Luddite”, but I’ll place my bets with a seasoned, mature crew any day over gadgets and gizmos.

  5. Looks like. iMO. Maybe. The “experienced pilot” done messed up. While holding for SVFR, “experienced pilot” had his last good chance to land at VNY or BUR and see another tomorrow.

  6. Excellent video.
    Once again, in our collective unisex, FB, homogenized, one size fits all societal way of thinking, because there was a celebrity involved, is the clarion call of “somebody has got to do something”, launching all or nothing accident prevention solutions. Simply add more electronic gizmos and, Voila!, problem solved. Simply add another pilot, Voila!, problem solved. Add more stringent flight rules, Voila!, problem solved.

    Had this flight been a medivac flight, with the pilot trying to get to an accident scene, and ended as the Kobe Bryant crash did, the pilot would have been a hero, losing his/her life scud running in an effort to save another. As it has happened in the past, if there is a spate of medivac accidents, the NTSB and FAA take notice and things slowly, very slowly change. Usually these changes involve a variety of things including training, on-board gizmos, and flight regulations. Medivac flights involve a certain amount of increased risk due to the reasons for the flight in the first place. Accidents do not always happen in CAVU weather, or on flat, unobstructed terrain.

    The rules for helicopter flight allows for the medivac flight to operate in weather minimums which is basically determined by the pilot’s comfort level. Yes, the pilot must be IFR rated, have a similar rated co-pilot, IFR certified aircraft, and have a minimum of required gizmos on board. Even with all those rules, medivac flights crash due to spatial disorientation or CFIT events. However, very few question why they were flying in those conditions. The motivation is noble justifying high risks taken.

    For a personal conveyance flight, because the passenger does not want to sit in ground bound traffic, and has the means to charter a helicopter to lift them over that urban congestion, there should be different flight rules. Paul points out in the video very clearly the differences. However, the reality of Part 135 helo operations for personal charter travel reveals to me those differences actually provide the perfect storm leading to the Bryant crash.

    Special VFR permissible, single pilot operation, 300ft altitude minimums over congested areas with see and avoid obstructions clearances, combined with ATC handling in and around very busy Class C and B airspace for air traffic avoidance yet “follow the 105” by sight, is an ideal recipe for justifying scud-running, potential pilot overload, and ultimately spatial disorientation followed by, in this case, uncontrolled flight into terrain. We forget that Bryant’s pilot had to hold for 15 minutes because there were a bunch of other helicopters wanting to do the same thing, at the same time, in close proximity of each other, in the same weather, some going to the same place. Everybody else made it to their respective destinations except for Bryant’s helo. This means that there were many souls in the hands of many single pilots in almost identical circumstances.

    The flight regulations for personal transportation may look on the surface different from medivac flights, but in reality are very similar in practical implementation with out the required on-board electronic gizmos, pilot credentials/ratings, and pilot duplication. I agree with Paul, it’s a cultural safety problem that will not be solved by one size fits all solutions.

    Prior to the celebrity focus of this crash, I had no idea what the present regulations are permitting flights to relieve urban mobility challenges for those wealthy enough to charter a helo. Too many VTOL flying conveyances in the same aerial square footage at the same time, in the same weather, having to navigate yet remaining proper separations from each other and clear of obstructions, communicating with ATC while flying Special VFR single pilot, making see and avoid decisions as they come contributes to multiple opportunities for failure. I don’t even want to imagine adding more VTOL’s big and small, autonomous and human flown to this toxic mess.

  7. “Waiting for a Part 135 Passenger Bill of Rights.”
    How about this:
    “Autonomous flight only. No dumb human tricks.”

  8. For IFR or flight at night TAWS has its benefits, I have this equipment in the jets I fly. But I think it is a waste of money for day VFR flight. I used to fly jumpers in a Kodak which has TAWS and EGPWS as part of the G1000 system. I never could figure out how to shut the ground prox off, so since the drop zone and runway was a private strip it was not in database. Had to listen to “terrain pull up terrain” on every landing after dropping off jumpers at altitude, along with “sink rate” on descent below 2500ft agl. I wonder how this works out when the Kodak is used as designed for “bush” operations. Got to drive those pilots nuts if they cannot turn the system off. Two of my company’s jets have a system that verbally announces the planes’ location on field in relation to runway. It has an annoying habit of announcing “short of runway__” at the same time the tower issuing a clearance or my FO making a required call out. Most of the other pilots and myself disable that system because of that interference. It is another system the NTSB wants the FAA to mandate.

    You can continue to come up with and install more “safety” or warning systems to the point of everything “crying wolf”. At that point pilots will just ignore that warning or pull circuit breakers to shut that system off. Whether that is right or not it is human nature to figure out a way around such systems. All the warning systems in the world will not help at this point.

  9. Really excellent report.
    I would just observe a couple of things: the ‘higher requirement for visibility for some ILS’s’ is of course partly a factor of the approach speed. So not an entirely fair comparison.
    I would also comment that Part 121 airplanes also spend a proportion of their flight close to the ground (and in some cases obstacles). So the inference that proximity to the ground is responsible for the difference in safety doesn’t quite work for me. It’s more to do with what mitigation’s exist for that? Fixed wing that are close to the ground are usually in protected radar controlled airspace, with a controlled set of parameters.
    Finally, doesn’t the old adage ‘if you think safety is expensive, you wanna try having an accident’ apply? Just ask Boeing…

    • Actually, Graham, quite a few ILSs have higher than the standard half mile. My old homebase at Oxford, Connecticut has 3/4 for all categories. Down the road a piece in Bridgeport, it has the same mins.

  10. I had a job flying 135 in the 1980’s, working for a small company, and back then its entire fleet was propeller-driven. Every passenger-carrying flight – Seneca, Navajo, Baron, KingAir – had a two-person crew. Yes, plenty of people fly these planes single-pilot, but I know and appreciate the logic of the company’s owners. First of all, pairing a newbie with an experienced pilot means good training opportunities. Second, each flight was an exercise in CRM, which adds safety to any operation, and paid off later as the company acquired jet aircraft. Finally, due to the payscale at the time, pilots were shall we say an affordable expense, especially compared to the cost of an accident. Two heads in the cockpit are better than one, and having that second person was if nothing else, really cheap insurance. I still prefer flying with another pilot, simply because s/he might notice something I missed, especially in busy airspace or during an emergency, which improves safety. I wonder if the outcome of the Kobe Bryant flight might have been different had there been two pilots in the cockpit.

    • Do any of us NOT fly better when there’s another pilot beside us?
      I know I’m more inclined to more conservative judgement, earlier decision-making, fewer excursions from the rules, and greater precision. Some of that is purely to avoid not getting ratted on, but primarily it’s a matter of pride that I don’t give another pilot the satisfaction of seeing unprofessional conduct, and wanting to set a good example.
      I have to believe that two professional pilots would have had a greater chance of withstanding the get-there-itis of a rich and valuable client. Others have commented that more gizmos were unlikely to help in such a task-saturated VFR environment, and that gizmos are cheaper than another salary. The cost effectiveness of the second pilot is not compared to the installed price of a set of electronic acronyms; it must be compared to the cost of the aircraft, lawsuits, and bad publicity.

  11. The crash site is along a very common helicopter route charted on the Los Angeles Helicopter Route charts. Why not an AWOS such as the passes in Colorado, et al? Also, why did Kobe and his handlers so some voluntary compliance by using a later model of the S76, with AGPWS, TCAS, DFDR, and DCVR? That’s the Queen of England’s ride, complete with two IFR current pilots and use of instrument flight rules when necessary. The later model also has WAAS. Kobe’s destination was KCMA with a very nice LPV approach. They could have filed IFR KSNA-KCMA, coupled to the LPV at CMA, and the autoflight would have flown the approach to a hover. What could be better than that on a marginal weather day, for a big bucks operations?

      • You are correct, Bob. I was speaking of what should have been with this big bucks operation. Later model, two IFR current pilots. With that, an IFR approval would be an easy change to the operator’s ops specs.

  12. Wally makes a good point assuming a later model would be equipped with an appropriate autopilot in addition to an IFR rated copilot. All this talk about TAWS would not have saved this flight. I believe one of the NTSB investigators admitted this early on.

    • The pilot broke the rules. The unfortunate outcome of that bad decision cost him and six additional people their lives. How can you prevent bad decisions? Not PROHIBIT them; PREVENT them?

  13. It’s important to mention specifically helicopters get all the high risk work, especially compared to airplanes. They don’t typically go to airports, they have to go in the worst of conditions, they are usually loaded right to capacity, and it’s often someone’s life that’s hanging in the balance. Airlines, charters, and even 91 airplane operaters never face these conditions because they go from airport to airport and by definition an airport is a safe environment compared to some canyon at night in a storm or a ridgeline when it’s blowing like mad.

    The fact that a legislator wrote some rule requiring the use of TAWS only adds to the noise and confusion without actually addressing the actual problem. TAWS would not have prevented the Bryant crash. Talk to any experienced helicopter pilot and you will find out loss of control for VFR to IMC nearly always results in a left turn dive. The onset of disorientation is almost instantaneous and the pilot will require a significant amount of time to get on the gauges. It’s not at all like an airplane which grants you the better part of a minute of inherent stability; a helicopter will wander off in a few seconds and take you with it if you’re not proficient in IMC control. You might not even get a chance to push a “level” button.

    The only solution to a crash like the Bryant one is to require pilots to be proficient in handling VFR into IMC. The only thing I’ve seen that really creates that stress, short of the real thing, is to fly at night with the Francis hood over unlit terrain or perhaps even worse lots of little dot light lights that create a kalaidescope effect in the small area that you might get a glimpse of outside. If your safety pilot can hand you a descending left turn as your initial condition after putting on the hood and you can get control back out of that then you’re probably going to be ok. If not then you’re not really proficient for pilot control in IMC in a helicopter. You can probably do OK flying IFR with the autopilot but you can’t actually control the thing yourself. After recovering try to reorient yourself and fly turn to a heading that’s more than 90 degrees from where you recovered and then fly a bunch of vectors and then an approach with no autopilot. And do it in something with no SAS that’s a legitimate “light” helicopter, not something big and less unstable.

    If a legislator wants to amend anything they should mandate VFR into IMC proficiency with no autopilot.

    • “The only solution to a crash like the Bryant one is to require pilots to be proficient in handling VFR into IMC.”

      Actually, there’s a much better solution: autonomous vehicles.

      • YARS, What’s your stance on the gym, golf, biking, swimming, hiking, and eating?

        5051 died from choking in the US in 2015. 772 bike deaths, 457,000 injuries. All of this and the upcoming autonomous vehicle accidents could be greatly reduced by the use of electronic muscle stimulation, feeding tubes and tele-presence. Your comments seem to imply that flying is solely about transportation. That’s not why I usually fly. Where do we draw the line?

        • We need not draw any line.

          For most people (including the deceased in the Kobe Bryant event), flying IS about transportation.
          That transportation may be inconvenient, annoying, expensive, and frustrating – or not. But what it is supposed to be is SAFE.

          We also have food-safety practices. Gym equipment that doesn’t maim us. Hiking trails that are not three feet from the edge of a cliff.

          Being careful, and enjoying life, are not mutually exclusive.

          In aviation, failing to be careful – as in continuing VFR into IMC – often instantaneously terminates one’s enjoyment of life. And OTHERS’ enjoyment of life.

          Machines don’t break rules. They don’t get clever. God save us all from clever pilots.

          • But machines do break and stop functioning entirely. I spend too much time around computers to ever trust them to autonomously decide how to get from Point A to Point B. Autonomy is a magnitude more complex than comparatively simple FBW systems (which still have failure modes that must be trained for).

          • YARS, the part that is missing in this narrative is that humans design machines and can’t envision every circumstance or failure that may occur. How do you think a machine would have handled Sully’s flight? Remember that humans designed the machines every time that you think that this is the answer..

          • Stephan:
            As stated by others, a machine would have landed in the only available open area – the Hudson River. But unlike a human pilot, a machine could do it at night, in zero-zero conditions.

            As for envisioning every circumstance or failure… Humans can’t do that, either. But neither humans nor machines NEED to do that. Impediments-to-safety happen on an ad-hoc basis. Mitigations are employed on an ad hoc basis. Machines can address thousands of failures simultaneously; humans cannot.

            The ego-rupturing truth is that flying just isn’t all that complicated, when compared to many other jobs that computers do successfully, every day.

          • YARS,
            (whatever an all caps name means). Humans and machines both have advantages in different scenarios, but your framing of issues in black and white speak that continues to dismiss the fact that software involves human programming leads me to question if you have any relevant aviation experience. It’s certainly easy to make bold black and white assertions on any topic with high confidence when experience level is low.

          • Stefan:
            Retired international-award-winning design engineer. Started programming in 1968. Background includes mission-critical autonomous control systems. Test pilot; 4,000+ hours PIC; CFII, airplane. Confidence bred of experience. Facile in monochrome and Kodachrome. 😉

          • YARS, sorry don’t buy it.. For starters, award winners don’t usually tout that line. I know your cv brag was meant to be impressive, but it just further emphasized your industry ignorance. I’ll let you be.. Seems you hijacked the conversation anyway, and your logic is independent of factual data. It’s too much work to educate someone with your convictions and is a turnoff to folks with any wisdom; hence the silence from others is the reason you probably always think you’re the smartest person in the room. Good luck in your future awards in autonomous vehicles.

  14. Before legislators start making rules they should get some experience. How about the legislator proposing TAWS as a requirment fly a simulation of the Bryant crash? Will TAWS help or will he lose control of the aircraft before even being able to look at a TAWS display? How about asking the people who actually face these conditions (e.g. medical helicopter pilots) what they think would improve safety? I’d bet almost all of them would say improve pilot skill flying VFR into IMC.

  15. I think that this accident is not about equipment on board the aircraft. It is about bad decisions. First, the pilot should not have taken the flight. When flying a helicopter in limited visibility you need to slow down. You cannot fly faster than your ability to do a 180 or a quick stop and land. I also think that a VIP that NEEDED to get there ON TIME was a major contributing factor. Over the 40 years I was an active US Army/Part 135 helicopter pilot there were times when I flew in “helicopter legal” but marginal weather and the passengers thought that I was the greatest. Other times When I used the knowledge I had gained and cancelled or cut short a flight to save their lives they left grumbling.

  16. The problem with aviation accidents is terrain. If the FAA could eliminate terrain all would be well. Maybe Garmin will come up with something, like an army of langolier’s.

    • By the way Paul, nice podcast, it puts things in perspective. However, it’s really to much common sense for me to handle this early in the morning.

  17. Gary:

    If an FBW system fails, you’re screwed. There is no work-around; no “emergency” cables or pushrods that connect the yoke to the flight-control surfaces.

    This industrial-automation computerized stuff bears little resemblance to the PCs that surround us.

    • FBW systems have degraded modes, and are a magnitude simpler than autonomous control systems. The same humans that apparently aren’t trusted to fly are trusted to build failure-proof autonomous systems?

      • Gary:
        I think you’re conflating FBW with “envelope protection” and other FMS functions.

        If an FBW quits, you’re done. There’s no alternative way to wiggle the ailerons.

          • Neither for the ailerons, but go ahead and go get typed on any Airbus after the A300 and then you can gain greater conceptual knowledge to understand things outside of your world as you know it.. It’s possible that an aircraft can be both fbw and have a mechanical backup means to control trajectory. Please check back in when you understand mechanical back up law and why it was developed. You can go purchase an Airbus type rating and gain some basic understanding before you log on to a forum of industry professionals, hijack the conversation, and tell people that a software design and automation is automatically the highest level of safety. Again, too much effort to educate an ignorant mindset. See Dunning-Krueger effect for more info..

          • So, if I sever the WIRES that are connected to those fly-by-wire joysticks, how does this “mechanical backup” system wiggle the vehicle’s control surfaces when I wiggle a joystick?

  18. I see that these comments have mutated into the FBW subject.
    Not being biased, but just trying to recall if there had been any reported
    failures of that system. Please comment.

    • It appears that some in the comentariat don’t know what an FBW system is; what it does (and does not do); how it works.

      I, too, have asked whether anyone is aware of a failure of an FBW. No one has offered any, and I’m not aware of one.

      • I can’t recall the specifics, and I’ll have to look for it later, but I do recall there being at least one Airbus that had control difficulties related to the FBW system. And it looks like there has also been an Su-30 crash caused by a FBW system failure.

        But FBW systems are comparatively simple and easy to design compared to a fully-autonomous vehicle. Such a system simply can’t have any failures OR signal misinterpretations or people die. And the more complexity in a system (especially a software-driven system), the more likely there will be some unhandled fault.

        Autonomy might be okay for freighters, but I can’t see it being certified as safe for civilian passenger use anytime soon. Certainly not in the next 50 years. And that’s not even taking into account the legal questions about who to blame if there is a crash.

      • In 1999 Goodyear had the Akron, Oh based blimp (Spirit of Akron) crashed due to an actuator failure in the FBW system. It was a mechanical failure though, not a software problem. It still resulted in loss of control.

  19. Great video, Paul! Thanks for sharing. Do you have a statistics source that you prefer to use? I’m doing a project and was looking for some source data to corroborate your points. So far I’ve found the BTS, but was wondering if you would recommend others..

    Also, as I’ve not flown helo, I’m surprised to hear so many think TAWS wouldn’t help with situational awareness in this circumstance. I have flown and trained a substantially large number of pilots in RNP and while we wouldn’t use EGPWS (TAWS) as primary navigation, it is a last resort “escape” tool in case of an unlikely failure such as dual FMS/FMC failure or something that is statistically unlikely to occur. But when that did happen in training, max power and “fly to the black” was rather effective..

  20. This should deflate TAWS et al.

    LA Times

    Kobe Bryant’s pilot had been disciplined by FAA over weather-related flight violation
    Ara Zobayan violated federal flight rules in 2015 when he flew into busy airspace near LAX despite being ordered not to by air traffic control, according to FAA records.

  21. Well … we all knew a lawsuit would be coming … and now it’s happened.

    On Monday, Feb 24, Bryant’s widow Vanessa, filed a 72 page lawsuit in LA Superior Court seeking unspecified general and punitive damages against Island Express Helicopters, its holding company and the heirs of pilot Ara Zobayan for the wrongful death of her husband, Kobe, and daughter. The suit alleges 28 counts of negligence and breach of duty saying that the defendants failed to exercise care in piloting the helicopter and failing to provide safe helicopter services. Reuters reports that the suit alleges that Zobayan “failed to properly monitor and assess the weather prior to takeoff, failed to abort the flight when he knew of the cloudy conditions, and failed to keep a safe distance between the helicopter and natural obstacles.”