Here is a Kobe Bryant crash update. More information about the circumstances of the flight hint that weather was likely the major factor and not a mechanical malfunction. The communications  between air traffic control and the pilot were normal but this flight was flown under Special VFR rules. Those rules allow an aircraft or helicopter whose pilot has received that clearance to fly with only one mile visibility and clear of the clouds.

Every pilot including this one knows that a Special VFR clearance is a license to commit suicide. One mile visibility or even Three miles is virtually no visibility at all when moving at 160 knots or about 200 feet a second. Scud running under low ceilings is dangerous but coupled with hilly terrain stacks all the odds against completing the flight safely.

Ceilings of clouds measured at airports are expressed as AGL, above ground level. When flying in hilly terrain you have to subtract from the ceiling the height of the terrain so for example a ceiling of 1200 feet AGL at the airport is only 900 feet AGL over a 300 foot hill.

Moreover the Marine Layer coming off the ocean is unpredictable and there are more dense and less dense areas of poor visibility in just a few hundred feet horizontally especially in hilly terrain.

The pilot of this helicopter was instrument rated and could easily have filed an instrument flight plan and flown above the Marine Layer which is typically no more than a thousand feet thick. A helicopter can stop, hover or land virtually anywhere. There simply was no need to fly along so fast when the terrain would come up faster than a pilot could react.

It is unclear if this aircraft was equipped with Terrain Avoidance tools like TAWS but if so it would have warned of looming terrain but flying that fast and that low could defeat even the best warning if the system was being used. Synthetic vision if installed might have afforded a look through the weather to see the terrain that was struck in time to avoid it. Not all aircraft have that feature.

Now it’s easy to jump to conclusions after a crash because the pilot can’t defend himself so the weather clearly is a factor and when flying that low and that fast in that weather if a malfunction did occur there is just no time to react to it before hitting the ground especially with rising terrain.

Like all aircraft accidents there are multiple factors that will have to be investigated and considered, for example, when the last time had the pilot flew actual IFR (Bad Weather) in a helicopter, what was his IFR currency, what if any mechanical squawks existed on dispatch.

This helicopter had extensive avionics modernization completed recently and that must be examined to see what if any additional navigation capabilities it gave the pilot and if he knew how to use it.

But this very challenging flight was being flown with one pilot. Even though that was technically legal, two pilots should have been in the front because the work load was clearly too high for this flight to be safely completed.

This accident is just terrible for all victims and their families. We grieve with them.

Arthur Alan Wolk

January 27th, 2020

The Wolk Law Firm extends its condolences to the family of basketball great Kobe Bryant and at least one of his children who passed away today in the crash of his Sikorsky S-76 helicopter. The crash occurred in low ceilings and visibility in a hilly area near Calabasas, California.

No flight plan had been filed at least as revealed by currently available information. No flight plan was required for that flight though the weather was challenging with low ceilings and visibility.

Kobe was a Philadelphia sport’s laureate and a graduate of Lower Merion High School in a Philly suburb where Arthur Wolk resides. What is little known is that Kobe spoke a number of languages, was a prolific writer and a real intellectual.

The helicopter was nearly thirty years old and was used frequently between the Camarillo airport and the John Wayne, Orange County Airport near where his daughter was regularly involved in basketball practice.

It is unknown just what terrain avoidance equipment was on board nor what the age or condition of the engines and rotor system were. Investigation may reveal a mechanical problem that caused or contributed to the crash. Communications between the pilot and air traffic control should reveal if there was a reported mechanical problem that preceded the crash.

Helicopters are permitted to fly well below the altitudes that fixed wing aircraft fly and often fly beneath the clouds at low level. Hopefully the pilot made use of air traffic control services during the short flight.

Examination of the wreckage should quickly reveal if there was a mechanical cause but regardless, the country has lost an icon that will be sorely missed along with the others who perished with him.

It’s a really sad day today for the Bryant family and for those who grew up admiring Kobe’s great achievements.

Arthur Alan Wolk

January 26th 2020

The FAA’s misinformation about airframe icing is like getting a gift of ice in the wintertime. For years we pilots have been taught that airframe icing can be expected when the outside air temperature is within 10 degrees F. of freezing and we are flying in visible moisture.

The same information is made applicable to jets but in most instances airliners have no anti-ice or deice over their tail surfaces, just heated leading edges of their wings and engine inlets.

Now there is a dearth of information out there of just what a manufacturer has to show the FAA to get Known Icing Certification and for good reason. If you knew, you would ground your airplane in icing conditions.

I was flying my Eclipse Jet out of Pueblo Co. yesterday and into the clouds that I had just vacated on my arrival. Even though the layers on approach were one layer at FL 200 (twenty thousand feet) and another at 12,000 feet there was no ice accumulated.

As I climbed toward the front range of the Rockies on my departure Westbound and looked at those nasty looking clouds over the mountains I remembered the words Orographic Cooling from my distant past and several cases I handled where jets were quickly overcome with ice in the mountains.

Orographic Cooling occurs when the winds are thrust up the windward side of the mountains and as they travel ever faster into the higher elevations the droplets of water that are clouds become supercooled.

If you have the misfortune to fly through some of it, even though there is no warm front overriding a cool surface, and no SLD (supercooled liquid droplets associated with warm rain dropping into cold air below and forming water that forms ice on contact) , you will accumulate ice, usually rime ice, at temperatures and at flight levels you never dreamed of.

So, as a precaution I turned on the engine inlet heat and waited. Well it didn’t take long for the airframe ice to start accumulating. Milky white rime ice on the leading edges of the wings began as the outside air temperature exceeded minus 12 degrees C! The ice continued to accumulate, though the deicing boots shed it quickly and effectively, through FL 240 and OAT of minus 20 degrees C. For those who speak only F, the ice started at 10 degrees F. and ended at about minus ten degrees F., well below any temperature the FAA has told us to expect airframe icing.

Lessons learned?

  1. Everything we have been told about airframe icing is useless when flying in, over or near mountains.
  2. Airframe icing can occur at temperatures well below the “within ten degrees of 32 degrees F”.
  3. Airframe icing can continue all the way up into the flight levels.

Now many will read this and say that all it means is that flying in the mountains is different than non-mountain flying. That might be true but only two of the jet icing  accidents I have handled occurred in the mountains and all of the turboprop icing accidents I have handled were in the flatlands.

Arthur Alan Wolk

January 22, 2020

Don’t quickly accuse the pilot in the Louisiana Cheyenne crash, it was likely not his fault. The Piper Cheyenne II is a very capable airplane when everything is working. It has a good safety record but it’s been out of production forever so it is old. The engines are normally pretty reliable Pratt and Whitney Canada PT-6’s though there are some very troubling flaws especially with the fuel controls.

This unspeakable tragedy that killed so many people is explainable if an experienced aviation litigator examines the crash and gets the facts to develop substance behind the three watchwords of airplane crash investigation. The Man, Machine and the Environment.

The Man is the pilot who apparently had been flying this very airplane for many years. His recent flight experience is unknown but assuming he was current, certainly there should have been nothing about him that figured into the accident.

The Machine is an old Cheyenne and its maintenance history is unknown right now. A very careful examination of that history is vital to understanding what may have impacted the Man’s ability to fly that day.

The Environment was bad, low ceilings and poor visibilities but not beyond the capabilities of an experienced and qualified Man to fly this airplane that day. The problem with low ceilings and visibilities is that when things go wrong, especially on takeoff, it’s difficult or impossible to see where you need to crash land if you have any hope of saving yourself and your passengers.

The propellers will tell some of the story. Badly curled blades indicate engine power. Straight or almost straight blades mean no engine power likely due to an engine failure. Now a PT-6 engine is a free turbine which means there is no physical connection between the propellers and the power section thus the blades are not always easy to read because even when the engine quits they still spin, albeit slower.

Absent a mechanical failure this accident has no explanation. Any good instrument pilot should have been able to make that takeoff without difficulty. But from witness descriptions, the airplane couldn’t climb and was gradually decreasing in altitude until it ran out of airspace and crashed and burned.

That usually means powerplant failure or instrument failure and in those weather conditions each can have fatal results.

Everyone (meaning the NTSB and FAA who will have the help of the manufacturers of the airplane and engine) will rush to blame the pilot but until the facts are known that may be premature.

Hopefully The Wolk Law Firm will be contacted before critical items of evidence are “lost”.

We figure out the Why better than anyone else because we are pilots, we are crash investigators and we are relentless in the search for the cause.

Arthur Alan Wolk

New Year’s Day 2020.