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In modern times, engineering allows humans to do everything: Drive in fast cars or trains, diving into the deep sea, and even going to space. Which is a great thing indeed.

But when it comes to technologies or rules on which life really depends on, it fails too much. I refer to the crash of helicopter flight Sikorsky S-76B N72EX with 9 people on board, including Kobe Bryant:

The helicopter was flying under special VFR and the pilot and aircraft were fully capable of IFR flight, according to this source: "Special visual flight rules blend the two: If you’re passing through an area enforcing instrument rules, but are heading for an area under visual rules, you can ask to continue flying under visual rules, so long as you stay clear of clouds. It’s fairly common but is allowed only for pilots who are certified to fly under instrument rules, and only in helicopters with the needed instruments. Pilots sometimes use the special visual flight rules to avoid the hassle of filing detailed plans before takeoff, required on flights under instrument control."

That being said, upon reaching the heavy fog of the Santa Monica mountains, the pilot could have easily switched to emergency IFR. Because special VFR aircraft need to be fully capable for IFR, just in case "something went wrong".

As a matter of fact, upon reaching the Santa Monica mountains the visibility was so bad, that the pilot of flight N72EX did indeed start a steep climb and flew through the clouds, therefore at instrumental meteorological conditions (IMC) which forced him to go into de facto IFR mode, obviously, which would not have been a problem at all.

Therefore, the extremely low visibility was not the (direct) cause of this helicopter crash, but rather a too low altitude, which has been recognized by the responsible ATC (have a look into the ATC recording starting at about 4:00 until the end). There are no known direct eyewitnesses of the crash of helicopter flight, but there are many earwitnesses who heard the helicopter flying just over their heads, but weren't able to see it due to extreme fog at the site, shortly before it crashed into a hill, therefore the altitude was too low indeed.

So how is it possible that in the 21th century a fully capable IFR helicopter and a IFR-certified pilot are making such an error, trying to navigate between hills by GPS while maintaining an altitude much too low for IFR or flight following?

Why isn't there an emergency flight rule in place that would have allowed the pilot with 20 years of flight experience to climb right before the Santa Monica mountains until the IFR minimum ground altitude was reached (maybe around 2400 feet), continuing the flight under emergency IFR and by flight following?

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  • $\begingroup$ If a downvote, please comment why, thanks! $\endgroup$ – FlyHighJess Jan 30 at 1:42
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    $\begingroup$ "Why are there no rules to prevent crashing..." - really? Think about the question you're asking here. Of course there are rules to prevent crashes. (Typically they do that really, really well.) Or is the question why don't those rules work perfectly, preventing every crash... because perfection, when dealing with people, is unattainable. This is essentially about speculation on a recent accident, which is explicitly off-topic here. Voting to close as such. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Jan 30 at 1:46
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is essentially asking for speculation about one particular aircraft accident, which is off-topic. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Jan 30 at 1:48
  • $\begingroup$ No, the rules aren't perfect at all, otherwise they would have prevented a certified IFR-pilot from hovering just above the ground through mountains in heavy fog, although he was IFR-certified., Upon realizing that the fog doesn't clear but became thicker and thicker, he should have been able to switch into emergency IFR mode and then ascending over 2300 feet which would him have cleared from all the mountains. Then flight following to get him through the clouds...he might have survived $\endgroup$ – FlyHighJess Jan 30 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Ralph: I changed a question a bit. But now I think this was enough for today... $\endgroup$ – FlyHighJess Jan 30 at 2:13
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There are rules. Without going into too much detail...

As you probably know, IFR flight requires the pilot to file and receive clearance for their flight plan. If you are already airborne, you are required to stay clear of clouds and have 3 mile visibility (1 mile for SVFR) until you receive clearance for an IFR flight plan. That flight plan is going to require you to have at least 1000 feet to 2000 feet of terrain and obstacle clearance depending on if it is in a mountainous area. Filing VFR does not have those restrictions. It also allows helicopters to get closer to terrain and obstacles like buildings so that they can prepare for landing in those areas. The pilot is required to do so in a manner that does not endanger persons or property.

In other words, a helicopter can fly at extremely low altitudes while under VFR. It can fly close to terrain under VFR. That is the special purpose of a helicopter. It is the pilot’s responsibility to discontinue the flight when the conditions are no longer VFR. The alternative is for the pilot to file a pop up IFR plan, and remain VFR in VMC until receiving clearance. Otherwise, he is breaking already established rules and best practices.

Problems arise when pilots fly at the edge of VFR when the conditions worsen or the terrain changes. A similar analogy is that you can drive your car at exactly the posted speed limit and be both safe and legal. If the roads become slippery due to rain, snow, or ice, you will be in violation of “careless or reckless” regulations.

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  • $\begingroup$ So in other words, the rule are set up in a way that actually promote crashes rather than preventing them? Because if the pilot would have been gone into full IFR, rising high about the mountains while requesting flight following, he would have broken established rules and best practices, but he would have survived nevertheless. Instead he tried to hover right above the ground and got himself and his 8 passengers killed. What kind of "best practices" are these, if the don't consider a violation in order to survive in an emergency situation? $\endgroup$ – FlyHighJess Jan 30 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe the rules need to set up differently between clouds and fogs, because clouds are easily visible an can be avoided by just not flying into clouds. But when you actually fly into fog, it's possible that the fog suddenly vanishes and you're cleared, but it's also possible that the fog gets worse and worse leaving you with zero visibility. That's what happend in L.A. last weekend, and I strongly think that the rules concerning fog needs to be changed for the saftety of air travellers, somehow. $\endgroup$ – FlyHighJess Jan 30 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ To my understanding, the pilot did not hover in VMC. Hovering in VMC is difficult for a newbie. It is old hat for a veteran pilot. Hovering in IMC is way more difficult. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Jan 30 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ The FAA regulations are set in place to force pilots into making the safe, right decisions. Pilots are required to know the weather at their point of departure, destination(s), alternate landing zones, and enroute. The FAA regulations state that you have to have alternates to your plan, whether VFR or IFR. The regulations set in writing what you have to do and how you have to do it to fly in IMC. The all of the regulations culminate in making the right decisions BEFORE you even start the engine. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Jan 30 at 3:08
  • $\begingroup$ Again, just like my analogy about driving, the regulations promote safety. They do not guarantee it. There is no way to do that. Even if they did guarantee safety, they can not guarantee that the pilot/driver would follow the rules. Have you ever driven 1 mph over the posted speed limit? If you have, you have broken a regulation. Have you ever driven in bad weather. If so, common sense as well as the regulations state that you must drive below the posted speed limit. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Jan 30 at 3:17
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Well the flight in question was operating under VFR nor had the pilot filed an IFR flight plan. The flight in question had an off airport destination which would have only allowed for a descent and landing under VFR operations. Could the pilot have filed an IFR or composite IFR/VFR flight plan? It’s possible. But the descent and landing would have had to be done in VMC as there are no available helicopter instrument approaches available for an off airport site like that.

VFR helicopter flights in marginal weather are not that unusual. And, given the pilot did these kinds of flights on a regular basis, there was no reason to think the day in question would be any different.

Third, N72EX WAS flying on an SVFR clearance and did have flight following at the time of the accident, so they were in contact with ATC at the time of the accident.

Again as to why the pilot did not file IFR for a route out to a Thousand Oaks is unknown. As stated above, it was an off field landing so an instrument approach was not available. The WX allowed for VFR for a helo that day. The pilot had flow those kinds of routes before and may have felt confident that he could do it again. It may well come down to mitigating factors such as poorer weather than anticipated, a flight crew and charter firm fighting schedule pressures to keep a client happy (Bryant was flying up to a sports park he ran in TO to guest coach a basketball game his daughter was participating in that day). And, finally, it might also be a case of otherwise smart people doing foolish things in aircraft and paying the price for it. This FAA film with real life helicopter pilot Clint Eastwood talks a little about contributing factors and how they can lead to dangerous situations.

Until we get more details, this kind of talk is just Monday Morning Quarterbacking; “If I were up there, I would have done so-and-so and would have never crashed”, etc. That’s easy to say on the ground at 1G; many benign situations can become death traps and its insidious just how fast that can happen.

As to intentionally entering IMC while flying through a canyon tracking a freeway visually at 130+ KIAS would have been extremely dangerous. While you might be able to justify that under the authority of PIC under 91.103, a CFIT would be highly likely. Even if you could climb out of there, entering controlled airspace in IMC without a filed IFR flight plan and without a clearance in congested SoCal airspace would also be a very risky gamble.

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  • $\begingroup$ The aircraft had passed into Class G airspace well before crashing and thus could not have still been flying under a Special VFR Clearance. $\endgroup$ – quiet flyer Jan 30 at 7:23
  • $\begingroup$ At the end of the flight, yes, though the controllers did not terminate SVFR nor did the pilot request to. $\endgroup$ – Carlo Felicione Jan 30 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ Good argument @CarloFelicione: "The pilot had flown those kinds of routes before and may have felt confident that he could do it again." - I also think that the pilot's experience has worked rather against him than benefitted him. As in "I've flown this route already a hundred times, so I know exactly what to expect." So even if he had a rotor failure, by flying only 2000 feet with instruments only he was taking a certain risk into account despite his IFR-capability. $\endgroup$ – FlyHighJess Feb 1 at 14:54

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