It is always very difficult to try and make sense of any accident, especially when it involves a true legend who was loved and admired by so many. It is a most certainly a tragedy and one that could have been avoided.
I am sharing my thoughts in hopes of bringing a bit of comfort through understanding. As in most accidents, there is usually a chain of events that take place. As pilots, you always try to see how these are unfolding so that you can break a link in the chain in order to prevent catastrophe. The more experience you have as a pilot, the more you learn of these various factors and hope to rise to the occasion when you are faced with them.
As Kobe himself has spoken about several times, the benefits of helicopter operations is to get from point A to point B in a more direct path if you are on shorter routes. He was able to fly over much of the condensed SoCal traffic to make his day more efficient. That gave him more time to workout and spend with his family.
Most pilots and operators of helicopters stay in VFR conditions. This is ‘visual flight rules’, meaning that you are in clear weather conditions and can always see ahead to where you are going. It is more of a straight shot if you can fly a heading, follow a freeway corridor, and land at or near your destination.
VFR vs IFR:
When a pilot who is instrument rated, meaning they have extensive training with flying on dashboard information minus the outside visual navigation points, flies in weather conditions requiring this, it is critical to be current. A pilot must either fly in a simulator that recreates the conditions being experienced inside the cockpit while navigating to practice destinations, or, they must fly with instructors pilots in those actual conditions or simulated by covering the pilots ability to see outside.
If a pilot is not current in these conditions or simulations, it can be extremely disorienting. This is where pilots self assess to determine if their capabilities and skills warrant a flight into those conditions. There are also rules in place by the FAA and usually the companies themselves about pilot currency requirements, especially in commercial operations.
When you fly IFR, it means instrument flight rules and you fly along routes which are basically airways in the sky. You have a clearance for these routes that you file ahead of time with ATC (Air Traffic Control). You may have assigned times of when you can takeoff and land based on the amount of other aircraft wanting to do the same thing.
What does this mean exactly? Only a pilot can request this type of clearance. It is used by pilots to still fly a more direct routing visually, even when the weather conditions are marginal. As an example, often times along the coast, we get thin layers of clouds because of the visible moisture off the water. ATC can either approve it or deny it based on how many IFR – instrument flight rules aircraft are in their airspace since they have priority. Visual flying pilots tend to have to be at lower altitudes than instrument flying pilots in order to deconflict them. It is up to the pilot to stay clear of the terrain.
As pilots, our number one priority is always safety. It is not just black and white as people tend to assume. We deal with very dynamic environments while operating at 500MPH. We must use all our resources, knowledge, skills, and experience to make solid decisions. Sometimes as a Captain, you may be the only person drawing that hard line that says, “we are not going under these conditions”. We get pressure sometimes to “get there” from our passengers, companies, fellow co-workers, and even our own crew members on that very flight.
There are so many variables to assess. These include weather, aircraft condition, experience level, training, passenger issues, crew factors, and personal conditions like fatigue or stress. One pilots limits or capabilities may be somewhat different from another’s. Most importantly, there is a balance in assessing the risk factors with the need to get people safely to where they want to be.
If you may remember, we lost John F Kennedy Jr. to this very thing. He felt pressure to get there, whether induced internally or externally, under conditions that he was not current or capable to fly in. The night came and along with it, a fog layer that disoriented him.
The pilot who flew that fateful flight allowed himself to succumb to the pressures. If only he had told himself “even if I lose my job over this, for diverting back to a different airport and not continuing on into these conditions, it is worth it to make sure these people are safe at all costs”.
It is so important to put our egos aside and be able to admit sometimes when we simply “cannot”. I have flown many celebrities and VIPs myself. When the aircraft door is closed and we are on our way, everyone then becomes an equally important family member of mine and I do not make decisions or perform any differently than I would if my own family was onboard. I am also the person who stands and faces everyone and delivers a caring, detailed PA when there is tough news to deliver. I have even almost been hit a few times by angry people but as long as I can walk away knowing I have done my very best to keep everyone safe, then I can literally live with that.
Our hearts break for everyone involved – Kobe, his family, those sweet young girls whose lives were just beginning, the coaches, and the family of the pilot. As with all accidents in aviation, we will learn and move forward with changes to better boost safety.
Thank you. Please stay safe and healthy.
Wishing you Blue Skies and Smooth Rides,