Aviation expert discusses how foggy conditions could have contributed to Kobe Bryant's death
People gather at a memorial for Kobe Bryant near Staples Center Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)
A seasoned expert needs thousands of hours of flight experience just to take the reigns of a complex aircraft like a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter. But as aviation expert Dr. Michael Canders told AccuWeather in a phone interview, all of those hours upon hours of work are just preparation for the worst.
"A long time ago, I heard someone describe aviation as hours and hours of work to be prepared for a stark moment of terror," Canders said.
On Sunday morning, in the hillside of Calabasas, that terror proved to be a tragic helicopter crash that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his daughter Gianna, all of whom all perished in the Sikorsky S-76B amid foggy conditions.
Canders, a former naval officer and Air Force helicopter rescue pilot, is an associate professor and serves as director of the Aviation Center at Farmingdale State College.
"Flying in fog can be dangerous because you have different requirements based on ceiling and visibility," Canders said. "Once the cloud ceiling gets less than 1,000 feet and visibility gets less than 3 miles, you should be on an IFR [instrument flight rules] plan because you’re expecting to fly in instrument meteorological conditions, which basically means you don’t have reference to the outside. You’re flying by reference to instruments inside the aircraft, you’re controlling and flying it typically in contact with air traffic control. So they’ll give you guidance on what to do. But it's never good to be flying in low visibility conditions in any aircraft."
Firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash where former NBA star Kobe Bryant died, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
As AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Frank Strait noted on Sunday, the cloud ceiling was around 1,100 feet at the time of the crash, which was shortly before 10:00 a.m. PST.
"The visibility would have been poor even in fog-free areas for the pilot, who was flying around 1,000 to 3,000 feet," Strait said.
"An onshore flow led to the development of low clouds and fog that settled in late Saturday evening for much of the area. The low clouds and fog remained in place through midday Sunday," AccuWeather Meteorologist Danielle Knittle explained. She added that wind speeds were very light at the time of the crash, "less than 5 mph."
AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said this time of year is not the region's foggiest, but foggy conditions can develop on occasion. "Fog is not uncommon in Southern California in the wintertime – outside of the 'June gloom' season," he said.
According to Canders, the visibility range is ultimately what determines how a pilot should operate an aircraft. Even though the pilot, identified by KTLA reporter Christina Pascucci as Ara Zobayan, was dealing with conditions worse than 3 miles of visibility, he requested what is known as a special visual flight rules (VFR) plan in order to continue flying. Upon being granted a VFR plan, Zobayan continued piloting the rest of the trip based on visual references -- or the lack thereof.
Flowers and balloons are placed at a memorial for Kobe Bryant near Staples Center Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Los Angeles. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Before being granted a special VFR for the rest of the planned trip to the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, Zobayan spent around 13 minutes circling the Burbank airport while communicating with controllers in the tower.
In an audio recording captured by LiveATC.net, a website that streams live air traffic control communications online, the pilot can be heard confirming to the controller that he was to "maintain special VFR at or below 2,500" feet.
Canders said that while the special flight vision rules allowed Zobayan to continue navigating through the fog, he was forced to deal with the poor visibility without instrument assistance.
“You do your flight planning on the ground so when you decide you’re going from point A to point B, you look at what the weather is like and make a decision from there," Canders said.
"What happens sometimes on a VFR day is that conditions deteriorate from some weather that wasn't forecasted, which sort of forces you into a different decision. So you could be flying on a VFR day when suddenly the ceiling and the visibility drops and so what pilots will do then is file a flight plan in the air. But, the problem, of course, is that air traffic controllers are typically busy doing other things, so it can take a while to get all of that done. So you can find your hands full in deteriorating weather conditions and no one wants to be in that situation.”
A woman gets emotional at the scene of a small memorial left in remembrance to Kobe Bryant at the entrance of the Bryant Gymnasium at Lower Merion High School, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Wynnewood, Pa. The 41-year-old Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in the crash in Calabasas in foggy weather conditions Sunday morning.(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Upon re-starting their journey, controllers indicated to Zobayan that the helicopter was flying too low to be detected by radar. In Bryant's final minutes before the fateful nosedive, the helicopter began sharply ascending, likely in order to be in a line of sight for controllers.
"You want that help from air traffic controllers and have them be able to tell you where you are," Canders said. "So if they lose radar on you, that builds things against you and the safety margins go down significantly.”
While Canders declined to speculate on any of the thoughts or decisions that the pilot may have made that preceded the tragedy, one thing was consistently clear in his view: weather complicated everything.
As the investigation by FAA and NTSB continues over what could be days or even weeks, there are many factors that could determine what led to the accident that has sent millions around the world into mourning.
"[Investigators] will look very closely at the pilot in command and see if he got sufficient rest before the flight. Did he have his proficiency requirements maintained?" Canders said. "But it’s very important to realize, as I tell my students, that when you’re the captain and in charge of that aircraft, you have a very big responsibility because things can change."
Canders said the tragedy and factors that went into the premature ending to Bryant's storied life will be required reading and a lesson for all who study aviation.
"A lot of aviation accidents are well known because they are dissected and all other pilots read about them and the lessons we need to carry," Canders said. "This will be required reading for all of us."
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