Tragic Death of Kobe Bryant a Reminder of Risk of Helicopter Crashes

RIP Kobe

The world is still reeling from the news that retired NBA star Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash this week. [1] Bryant spent his career as a Los Angeles Laker, and the southern California metropolis is a city in mourning. A game scheduled between the Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers was postponed in observance of Bryant’s passing. [2] The tragic news has also saddened many fans across Nevada, and it also brings a somber reminder of the danger of helicopter crash accidents.

Bryant: A Complex Legacy Trending Better

Bryant is considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, and a quick review of his accolades makes it clear why:

  • Drafted into the NBA at age 17 [3]
  • At the time, youngest player to play in an NBA game
  • Youngest player to start in an NBA game
  • Youngest player drafted to the NBA All-Star Team
  • Youngest player to win the NBA Slam Dunk Contest
  • Back-to-back-to-back NBA Champion
  • Youngest player to win three NBA Championships
  • Youngest player to reach 20,000 career points (and 25,000, and 30,000 …)
  • Five-time NBA Champion
  • Two-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player
  • 18-Time NBA All-Star
  • Two-time Olympic gold medalist [4]

On the other hand, Bryant had a reputation as a brash and arrogant player who feuded with other NBA stars. In 2003 he was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel employee in an encounter that he claimed was a consensual extra-marital affair. But Bryant recovered from that stigma and continued to dazzle on the court. Off the court, he became a devoted father to his four daughters and an outspoken advocate for women’s sports generally and for the WNBA in particular. He also became involved in venture capital, multimedia production and other worldly pursuits. [5]

Sikorsky S-76B

A Tragedy Shrouded in Mystery

While we may never know for certain what caused Sunday’s tragic accident, investigators have been able to piece together some clues that may hint at an answer. We do know that the  helicopter carrying Bryant and his teenage daughter was flying on a foggy morning, resulting in limited visibility and making it more difficult for the pilot to navigate the terrain. The pilot, Ara Zobayan, had logged more than 8,200 hours of flight time, with nearly two-fifths of those hours taking place in the same model of helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76B, he was flying at the time of the accident. He had made the same trip just the day before. The helicopter climbed to approximately 2,300 feet before falling at a rate of 33 feet per second (approximately 23 miles per hour). This is much too fast for a standard landing and likely indicates some problem with the helicopter or pilot. It is possible that the helicopter narrowly missed clearing the top of a hill and was damaged. The helicopter had no “black box” on board that would have recorded flight data and some audio from the cockpit, but investigators are checking an iPad that was on board for clues. [6]

Unfortunately, helicopter crashes like the one on Sunday that took the lives of Bryant and eight others have become more common in recent years. While fatal helicopter crashes are still quite rare, the rate of fatal helicopter accidents per 100,000 flight hours rose between 2016 and 2018. In 2016 there were averages of approximately 3.67 helicopter injury accidents and 0.52 fatal helicopter accidents per 100,000 flight hours. In 2018, those numbers were 3.62 accidents and 0.72 fatal accidents per 100,000 flight hours. The percentage of fatal accidents in private flights saw the biggest increase, from 22 percent to 29 percent, while the percentage of fatal helicopter accidents involving commercial flights, air ambulances, and crop dusting fell noticeably during the same period. This may be due to the fact that these industries include targeted safety training and flight simulators, which may be more rarely seen among private pilots. [7]  Regardless, Nevadans are familiar with aviation related crashes with many Las Vegas helicopter operators providing sightseeing tours to and from the Grand Canyon as well as operators in Northern Nevada over Lake Tahoe; in fact we detailed one of these tragic helicopter accidents just last year when a helicopter originating from Las Vegas perished over central Mexico.

According to the United States Helicopter Safety Team (USHST), this rise in wrongful death accidents may be due in part to an increase in non-essential, low-altitude flights, which tend to encounter more obstacles such as buildings, power lines, or hills. Helicopters are legally allowed to fly much lower than other aircraft, but this means that this type of aircraft is often closer to land-based obstacles that could cause accidents. [8] Bryant and the other passengers were flying from the Los Angeles area to a weekend basketball tournament elsewhere in California, [9] and the pilot received clearance to fly despite the vision-obscuring conditions.

However, despite the recent rise in fatal helicopter crashes among private pilots, helicopter crashes remain extremely rare. According to the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST), there are more than 12,000 helicopters registered in the United States, and in 2019 we saw approximately 0.7 helicopter accidents per 100,000 flight hours. Accidents were down last year both in the United States and worldwide. Between 2013 and 2017, total accidents decreased by 32 percent, with fatal accidents decreasing by 44 percent. [10]

The safety of any individual helicopter ride depends on the state of the vehicle and the safety practices of the owner and pilot. With proper pilot safety training and helicopter maintenance, most helicopter flights are perfectly safe. In fact, one is much more likely to die in a car accident than in a helicopter crash. Even so, helicopter and other air accidents are always investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and other government and local authorities to determine whether or not pilot negligence/error or mismanufactured/maintained equipment resulted in the accident.

[1] https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/28577267/mamba-never-china-mourns-kobe-bryant-death-celebrates-legacy

[2] https://www.nba.com/article/2020/01/27/los-angeles-lakers-la-clippers-game-postponed-official-release

[3] https://www.npr.org/2020/01/26/799716293/basketball-legend-kobe-bryant-killed-in-helicopter-crash

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobe_Bryant

[5] https://www.npr.org/2020/01/28/800350329/the-complicated-legacy-of-kobe-bryant

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/28/sports/basketball/kobe-bryant-death.html

[7] https://qz.com/1791791/helicopter-crashes-like-kobe-bryants-have-become-more-common

[8] Ibid.

[9] https://time.com/5772382/kobe-bryant-helicopter-crash-victims

[10] https://www.businessinsider.com/helicopters-safe-to-fly-accidents-2020-1

Image Credit by Ronnie Macdonald

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