Kobe & JFK Jr: Visual Flight Rules
The nation is mourning the loss of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, who passed suddenly yesterday morning along with his 13 year old daughter and all 7 others on board a helicopter that crashed in the northern canyons outside Los Angeles. The outpouring of grief and sadness is being felt all across the globe, as Bryant's talent was rivaled by his attractive personality.
Nearly 23 years ago, the nation went through a very similar grieving process with the loss of JFK Jr in July of 1999, when his Piper Saratoga crashed 7 miles short of Martha's Vineyard due to disorientation in inclement weather.
Kobe Bryant and John F Kennedy Jr were both larger than life American figures lost far too early due to flying during questionable conditions under Visual Flight Rules or (VFR). Visual Flight Rules requires the pilot to rely on his physical sight, unlike (IFR) or Instrument Flight Rules where the pilot can simply rely on his or her instruments.
In the case of Kobe Bryant, the exact cause of the crash has not been finalized by the National Transportation & Safety Board. However, eyewitnesses said the helicopter was hovering at very low speeds shorty before impact. But, data from the flight path says the helicopter was traveling at speeds upwards of 170 mph and ascending at a rate of more than 4000 feet per minute.
The likely theory is that the helicopter pilot became disoriented in the low hanging clouds and instead of climbing in elevation and switching to IFR, the pilot chose to descend in elevation and continued to rely on VFR. Unfortunately, the canyons in southern California rise very quickly. Furthermore, it takes only seconds for a pilot to become disoriented in the clouds.
When Bryant's Sikorsky S-76B took off from John Wayne Airport the conditions were not great, with an overcast sky at 1,300 feet. In fact the Los Angeles Police Department grounded their helicopters yesterday morning.
But, Bryant wanted to attend his basketball game and the pilot could have requested to use IFR, but that would have delayed their trip by up to an hour, as the local air traffic controllers would have been needed to direct them in the busy LA airspace. Sadly for Bryant, his pilot chose the quicker option and flew by VFR.
Bryant's pilot must have felt the pressure to deliver his VIP passenger as soon as possible, the way JFK Jr might have felt pressure to make his family's wedding on time. Both flights could easily have been scrapped due to weather conditions, but went ahead anyway.
In JFK Jr's case, he lacked the training to fly with IFR which would have been infinitely safer. But, Bryant's pilot could easily have chosen the safer IFR route, with only the downside of adding time to their trip. Or, Bryant and JFK Jr could have simply chosen to drive and deal with weekend traffic rather than embark on unnecessary flights. The World War 2 slogan "Is Your Trip Necessary" comes to mind.