Kobe Bryant Crash Analysis: Fine Margins

This analysis is in my opinion using research conducted online. It is not to be used as an authority on the subject but is my personal perspective only. The NTSB has not reached a conclusive outcome as to the cause of this accident; the investigation is still ongoing.

It's easy to assign blame to a pilot when any air accident takes place, however the reality may be different. The truth is when you are flying not only do you have such a large responsibility on your shoulders but sometimes the pilot may only have minutes if not seconds to react if something unpredictable occurs. The pilot of this helicopter had over 8,000 hours of experience and was considered a veteran in his field.


Looking back at his record, it has been reported in the wider media that the pilot had received one FAA violation. This was due to entering controlled airspace without prior permission, as the request to enter was denied due to concerns regarding the weather. The FAA deemed that the PIC was at fault due to his inadequate pre-flight planning which involved not planning or reviewing current weather. Not many pilots have a perfectly clean record so one violation in over 8,000 hours needs to be put into perspective and may point to an otherwise unblemished record.


"No Wise Pilot, No Matter How Great His Talent or Experience Fails To Use a Checklist"

Early in our training we learn the importance of checklists, not just those needed to operate an aircraft but checklists that help a pilot decide whether he is able to operate to a high degree of competence. One example is the PAVE checklist.


Pilot - Am I personally healthy enough to operate this aircraft? Have I taken any medication or had any recent illness that may prevent me from acting as Pilot In Command?


Aircraft - Have I flown this aircraft before? Do I know its limitations?


EnVironment - Have I received the most up to date weather reports? Do I know the area and the surrounding terrain well?


External Pressures - Often overlooked, external pressure can sub-consciously affect a flight. As pilots there is always going to be some form of external pressure. Ferrying celebrities on board an aircraft is a blessing to any pilot, but with this blessing comes with an added level of responsibility. Although a pilot may become accustomed to having 'big names' on the passenger manifest, the pressure is always in the back of the pilots mind.


As a pilot I believe Special VFR adds another dimension of risk.

SVFR is requested by the pilot to the controlling agency if they are able to maintain 1 statute mile of visibility and remain clear of clouds. It allows pilots to 'break' standard VFR minimums in order to reach their final destination.


In my personal opinion Special VFR is a contentious subject. During flight school I was taught that Special VFR is a 'worst case scenario.' If you absolutely have to request it and are certain that you can remain clear of clouds with one statute mile visibility, its an option worth considering. However, as a private pilot who has the privilege of using SVFR I have no intention of requesting it.


News that emerged fairly quickly after the crash, was the fact that the helicopter did not have a terrain warning system. Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) alerts pilots when they are dangerously close to surrounding terrain. Initial reports suggested that the aircraft was diving between 2000ft-3000ft per minute. If that was the case its doubtful that TAWS would have been effective in mitigating the accident. Furthermore, if a pilot is truly spatially disorientated in flight, he may not be able to save the helicopter even after receiving an alert from TAWS.


"Pilots deprived of visual references while flying can quickly lose control of the aircraft and succumb to one of general aviation’s biggest killers: spatial disorientation."

Spatial disorientation in aviation is a very dangerous phenomenon. During early flight training you are taught as a pilot if you find yourself in a cloud or an area of low visibility, always rely on your flight instruments. If this accident was caused by spatial disorientation recovering would have been extremely difficult.


Orientation is sourced from the various senses in our body. Unfortunately, as humans we are limited because our senses cannot detect small gradual changes, in addition, large changes are often exaggerated. This is made far worse when our visual cues are taken away, as we then start to concentrate on our body to rely on our orientation. As a pilot it is vital to focus on the instruments in the plane and ignore what your body is trying to tell you.


Accidents such as the one showcased in this post highlight how dangerous flying is, especially in areas of low visibility and high terrain. Through scenario based training and taking a pro-active approach the aviation industry could become safer for all.


To finish off this analysis I'd like to remember those victims who were overshadowed by the wider media. Through no fault of his own Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna remained at the centre of this accident due to the celebrity status they possessed. However, we should not forget that the pilot and 6 others also lost their lives in this tragic accident.


References:

GAJANAN, M. (2020) ‘Teenage basketball players and coach killed.’, Time, January, p. 1. Available at: https://time.com/5772382/kobe-bryant-helicopter-crash-victims/.


Mark, R. (2020) ‘What authorities have learned so far about the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash’, p. 1. Available at: https://www.popsci.com/story/aviation/kobe-bryant-crash-investigation-updates/.


Danko, M. (2020) ‘Kobe Bryant Crash: NTSB Update Points to Improper VFR into IMC’, p. 1. Available at: https://www.aviationlawmonitor.com/2020/02/helicopters/kobe-bryant-crash-ntsb-update-points-to-improper-vfr-into-imc/.


HOUSTON, S. (2019) ‘PAVE’, p. 1. Available at: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/pave-a-personal-minimums-checklist-for-risk-management-282853.


LA Times (2020) ‘ara-zobayan-kobe-pilot @’, p. 1. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/socal/daily-pilot/news/story/2020-01-28/ara-zobayan-kobe-pilot.


Munger, C. (no date) ‘Charlie-Munger-No-wise-pilot-no-matter-how-great-his-talent-and-experience-fails-to-use’. Available at: https://quotefancy.com/quote/756831/Charlie-Munger-No-wise-pilot-no-matter-how-great-his-talent-and-experience-fails-to-use.


Bergqvist, P. (2011) ‘Special VFR’, FlyingMag, p. 1. Available at: https://www.flyingmag.com/technique/tip-week/special-vfr/.


Cohen, B., Ailworth, E. and Pasztor, A. (2020) ‘Kobe Bryant helicopte Didnt Have Critical Warning System’, WSJ, p. 1. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/kobe-bryant-helicopter-didnt-have-critical-warning-system-officials-say-11580264053.


AOPA (2020) ‘Spatial Disorientation’. Available at: https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/online-learning/safety-advisors-and-safety-briefs/spatial-disorientation.

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