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