VFR - IMC: Kobe Bryant

“I can see the ground let me descend just a bit more.”

"If I climb above this cloud layer I'm sure I can fly VFR on top.”

“The weather looks fine don’t worry.”


Any of these phrases sound familiar? I hope not. As a VFR pilot you have to follow Visual Flight Rules, which in summary, are a set of regulations permitting you to fly in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) whereby you can see visual references. Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) are also a set of regulations, however they permit you to fly without visual references in Instrument Meteorological conditions (IMC). IFR pilots are able rely solely on their instruments, when flying in periods of bad weather. In general terms, VFR pilots fly in areas of good weather and IFR pilots are able to fly in periods of bad weather as well as good weather. Flying VFR into IFR conditions however, can have detrimental consequences, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots association found that since 2002, 86% of all VFR flights into IFR conditions flights were fatal.


Kobe Bryant was more than just an athlete he was a legend, global icon and a father of four. The All-star and communal activist racked up numerous accolades both on and off the court. He was blessed with a beautiful family and will be remembered as one of the most inspirational icons for generations. Also on board the helicopter that day was his daughter Gianna, a promising up and comer, whose basketball talents were just starting to grow. Sadly, on January 26th Kobe along with his daughter Gianna and 7 others, boarded a helicopter flight to take them to Mamba Academy. Unfortunately, the helicopter never reached its final destination.


What seemed like a routine flight for the 8,000 hour Pilot In Command (PIC), operating from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, to a neighbouring airport some 30 minutes away, soon turned to disaster. The first half of the flight was relatively normal as the majority of the geography is flat, weather on the day was borderline fine for VFR flight. As an experienced pilot who had flown the route many times nothing seemed out of the ordinary that morning.


After being transferred to Burbank Tower the PIC requested Special VFR for his transition. In Laymans terms Special VFR provides you permission to fly when you may be in breach of Visual Flight Rules. For example, if at your destination you know you can land but you may be breaking a Visual Flight Rule in doing so you, i.e going closer to clouds than VFR allows, you can request Special VFR. However, you must remain clear of clouds and have at least 1 statute mile visibility.


As the helicopter approached the San Fernando valley weather started deteriorating, and with terrain also starting to rise, this presented the pilot with a potential deadly combination. As the helicopter flew deeper into the San Fernando Valley the topography starts to change considerably, with the higher terrain bordering the Pacific Ocean. As any pilot would tell you, a large body of water surrounded by mountainous terrain immediately indicates the high chance of fog formation. This is due to the rapid cooling that can take place when cold moist air over the water is forced up the mountainous terrain. As this fog moves inland visibility is significantly reduced.


As the flight continued the with seemingly deteriorating weather conditions the pilot chose his visual reference as the 101 highway. He proceeded with 'Flight Following,' a safe and highly recommended practice in aviation, whereby Air Traffic Control can monitor your flight and help ensure you reach your destination safely. However, in order for the controlling agency to track your aircraft you must be within their radar limits, the helicopter wasn't, it was too low.


A reasonable assumption was that the PIC didn't want to ascend into the low cloud layer above, therefore he remained just beneath the clouds to see his visual checkpoint. This is a dangerous phenomenon known as scud running. This prevented Air Traffic Control providing any radar assistance that the pilot vitally needed. During the final few moments of the flight the pilot executed a left turn followed by a rapid descent into the surrounding terrain. The impact left no survivors. Whether this was spatial disorientation after entering IFR conditions remains to be seen. The NTSB continues to investigate this tragic accident.


All information provided is to my own understanding, this crash is still being investigated by the NTSB therefore there is no concrete report identifying the true cause of this crash.

References:


AOPA (2020) vfrintoimc @ www.aopa.org, VFR INTO IMC. Available at: https://www.aopa.org/asf/ntsb/vfrintoimc.cfm?window=1.


France, L. and Harmeet Kaur (2020) ‘Kobe Bryant called himself a “girl dad.” His words are inspiring proud fathers to celebrate their love for their daughters’, p. 1. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/29/entertainment/kobe-bryant-gianna-girldad/index.html.


LA Times (2020) ‘The last moments of Kobe Bryants Flight’, p. 1. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-01-31/the-last-moments-of-kobe-bryants-flight-raise-perplexing-questions-on-cause-of-crash.


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