Kobe Bryant’s Tragic Crash and Why It May Be Time to Change Private Helicopter Rules (Video)
Basketball superstar Kobe Bryant died Sunday in a tragic helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. Bryant was 41 years old.
According to officials, Bryant was flying in a private helicopter with eight other people in what the Los Angeles Times called “foggy conditions.” Emergency personnel responded to the crash site, however, there were no survivors. One of Bryant’s daughters, 13-year-old Gianna, was also killed in the crash.
The victims along with Bryant and his daughter include John Altobelli, 56, longtime head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team; his wife, Keri; and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same basketball team as Gianna as well as Christine Mauser, a girls basketball coach at a nearby private elementary school, along with Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton CNN reported. The helicopter's pilot, Ara Zobayan, also died in the crash.
An investigation into the fatal helicopter crash that also killed all onboard will focus on weather conditions and potential mechanical errors, according to the Los Angeles Times. The helicopter was a 1991 Sikorsky S-76B model owned by a company named Island Express Holding Corp.
Although multiple reports have said that other helicopters in the area were grounded due to the weather, the foggy conditions doesn't necessarily mean that is unsafe to fly.
Under such conditions, pilots may choose to fly under “Instrument Flight Rules” or IFR. This type of flight is when a pilot is led by air traffic controllers through inclement conditions. However, in a busy airspace like southern California, you may have to wait an hour for instructions. “You’re just one of many waiting in line, and it doesn’t matter if you’re Kobe Bryant,” assistant professor of aviation at the City University of New York Paul Cline told NY Mag.
If a pilot is not operating under IFR, they’re using VFR or “Visual Flight Rules,” wherein they are navigating by sight. An audio recording of the pilot and air traffic control made it seem like he was operating under VFR, although that information has not yet been confirmed.
Bryant’s former pilot told the Los Angeles Times that the helicopter involved in the crash “had the feel of a limousine” and a strong record of safety. “The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn’t happen,” he told the newspaper.
Bryant was a longtime helicopter enthusiast and even reportedly used it as his main mode of transportation to and from work while still an active member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
In 2010, reporter J. R. Moehringer wrote in the March issue of GQ: “He takes a private helicopter from Orange County, where he lives with his wife and two children, to every home game. It's a nice dash of glitz, a touch of showbiz that goes well with the Hollywood sign in the hazy distance. But sexy as it might seem, Bryant says the helicopter is just another tool for maintaining his body. It's no different than his weights or his whirlpool tubs or his custom-made Nikes. Given his broken finger, his fragile knees, his sore back, and achy feet, not to mention his chronic agita, Bryant can't sit in a car for two hours. The helicopter, therefore, ensures that he gets to Staples Center feeling fresh, that his body is warm and loose and fluid as mercury when he steps onto the court.”
According to Aviation Law Monitor, private helicopter safety can vary greatly from regulated aircraft.
The publication noted in a 2011 post, “helicopters operate largely under their own set of rules.” Some of those differences include minimum altitudes, as planes must stay “500 feet above any person and 1000 feet above any person or building in a populated area, but helicopters can get as close to a building or person as they want, as long as the flight poses no "hazard to persons or property on the surface."
Additionally, planes must follow designated traffic patterns, but helicopters are expected to "avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft,” meaning they must simply avoid planes in the air.
Lastly, airplanes, the posting explained, “cannot fly unless the weather conditions allow certain minimum visibility,” however, a helicopter may operate even when “flight visibility is below 1 statute mile when required for other aircraft.”
According to statistics released by the International Helicopter Safety Team and the United States Helicopter Safety Team, though internationally helicopter crashes decreased from 2016 to 2017, crashes in the United States went up. In 2017, there were 121 helicopter accidents in the United States, causing 34 fatalities, up from 108 accidents and 29 fatalities in 2016. That marks an accident rate of 3.55 accidents per 100,000 flight hours, according to the Flight Safety Foundation.
In late 2019, state lawmakers in Hawaii even asked federal officials to ground all helicopter tours in the islands or ban flights over residential neighborhoods following a fatal crash in Kailua.
"We've been shut down at every attempt," State Sen. Laura Thielen told Hawaii Public Radio. "We're going back in the letter to say to the FAA, you guys need to ground these commercial flights until the investigation is done. It's the second crash of a tour helicopter [of the] same type, and the third crash in this region in recent years." She added, "We need to determine if they're safe before you continue to allow them to operate. Or at a minimum to order them out of the airspace over residential areas.”
No word yet on what caused Bryant’s fatal crash, though the investigation is ongoing.
Bryant is survived by his wife, Vanessa, and their daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months.