Fatal Helicopter Crash in LA County, CA
Last week (the 26th of January 2020), a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter built in 1991 crashed in Calabasas, California, killing the pilot and all eight passengers. This has made mainstream press because Kobe Bryant, a famous basketball player, was on board and because it is not immediately clear why the helicopter crashed at all. It’s always hard to get an idea of what actually happened in the early days of an accident but we can take a look at what is known so far.
The S-76 is a popular helicopter for executive flights. It departed normally with eight passengers from John Wayne International Airport in good weather and followed the Ventura Freeway northwest towards Los Angeles. One news report said that Kobe Bryant was taking his daughter and her friend to a youth tournament in Thousand Oaks.
Here is the audio from ATC:
Low cloud at Burbank airport led to a number of inbound aircraft to be diverted and the helicopter was asked to hold to keep out of the way of the traffic. They then were cleared to pass through Burbank’s airspace and contacted Van Nuys. After being told that the area had IFR conditions, the pilot asked for Special VFR clearance. He followed the 101 freeway towards Thousand Oaks but then turned south towards the hills. It looks as though the helicopter then briefly climbed to clear the rising terrain before descending rapidly.
The last report on Flight Radar 24 shows the helicopter descending through 1,700 feet with a ground speed of 153 knots. Witnesses on the ground said that they heard a spluttering sound before the helicopter crashed into the fog-obscured hills. There was no distress call.
Here is NTSB footage from the crash scene:
And here is a video of the Sheriff’s briefing as published by the LA times:
There are no power lines in the area of the crash. The hills are at around 1,100 feet.
The helicopter is certified for single pilot VFR operations. Also, although the flight was VFR throughout, the commercial pilot was instrument rated. The helicopter was not fitted with a cockpit voice recorder.
Two who live in the area posted to PPRuNe about the weather that day and witness reports:
I live about 80 miles/130km SE from the crash site, but the terrain and microclimates are similar. I was mountain biking and there was a low-lying fog layer about 100-200 feet thick, with a broken around 3000-5000 feet (my estimate).
Another mountain biker and IFR-rated pilot was interviewed. He was first on the crash scene and said there was very dense fog with 3-4 feet of viz. They heard the S76 just before and during impact but did not see it. However, witnesses in the general area (I know those accounts turn out inaccurate) saw the helo “falter” and “sputter”, and then steeply descend. So there seemed to be good visibility elsewhere.
The coastal scud in that area blows in from the west along Hwy 101 and hugs low-lying terrain. My very early speculation- they were VFR on top over a patchy ground fog layer in the canyon. A mechanical issue forced a descent into IFR and terrain.
I live 1 mile from the crash site. This morning I was at that location 10 minutes before the accident and viz was about 1/4 mile. The weather does not blow in from the west but rather the marine layer comes up Malibu Canyon from the south and usually burns off by late morning. However, this morning it was really damp unusual weather and definitely IMC conditions. The helicopter came westbound along the 101, then turned S across Agoura Rd then E where it crashed into the hillside. Without wishing to speculate, I wondered if the pilot was attempting for the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Dept Helipad. Had he continued West along the 101 for another 20 seconds then turned S across Agoura Rd , he would have been over the helipad. However with 1/4 mile viz at the surface at best, it may have been difficult to spot.
One good article with some more background information is in the New York Times:
When the helicopter reached Burbank, where the foothills rise above the Los Angeles basin, controllers kept the aircraft circling for 12 minutes, clearing other traffic, according to the N.T.S.B. They then issued a special visual clearance for Mr. Bryant’s flight to pass through their airspace under less-than-optimal visual conditions. The assumption was that the pilot would maintain legal clearance from clouds, or seek clearance to fly on instruments, after that, a Federal Aviation Administration official said.
But there were no further communications until witnesses called 911 at 9:47 a.m. and reported the sound of whirring blades, broken fiberglass and a massive fire on a hillside.
This was a VFR flight in marginal conditions but being flown by a very experienced pilot. It could have been a loss of situational awareness leading to a controlled flight into the rising terrain, however it seems to me that the helicopter was clear of the hills when the sudden descent started. The sequence of events seems more like a stall but I am honestly not sure what’s involved in stalling a helicopter and whether that’s likely. Another explanation would be a mechanical issue, perhaps combined with the pilot making a sudden manoeuvre, aware that they were over the hills.
The NTSB have their hands full with this one. I’ll be watching for updates.