Fatal Helicopter Crash in LA County, CA

31 Jan 20 25 Comments

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:

NTSB investigators Adam Huray and Carol Hogan
CALABASAS, California (Jan. 28, 2020) — In this photo taken Jan. 27, NTSB investigators Adam Huray and Carol Hogan examine wreckage as part of the NTSB’s investigation of the crash of a Sikorsky S76B helicopter near Calabasas, California, Jan. 26. The eight passengers and pilot aboard the helicopter were fatally injured and the helicopter was destroyed. (NTSB photo by James Anderson)
The debris field
CALABASAS, California (Jan. 28, 2020) — The extent of the debris field from the Jan. 26, crash of a Sikorsky S76B helicopter near Calabasas, California, can be seen in this photo taken Jan. 27. Documentation of the debris field is a standard practice in NTSB crash investigations. The eight passengers and pilot aboard the helicopter were fatally injured and the helicopter was destroyed. (NTSB photo by James Anderson)

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:

Flying Into Patchy Fog, Kobe Bryant’s Pilot Had a Decision to Make

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.

25 Comments

  • Definitely one to wait out the preliminary NTSB report for, clarifying (hopefully) the actual metereological situation in that valley (the NTSB crowd-sourced photgraphs, apparently a few people were hiking that Sunday morning), any mechanical failures, and what if any of the IFR equipment that was installed in the helicopter when the charter company bought it five years ago was still installed and operable — the CVR seems to have been removed, so who knows if e.g. the radar altimeter and weather radar were still there.

    The flight path is really weird, the pilot might have climbed into cloud accidentally, but the safest course of action would have been to turn the autopilot on and keep climbing straight westward until coming out on top, then contacting ATC and perhaps declaring an emergency.
    Instead, we see the helicopter do a left turn that loses it 1200 feet of altitude (and picking up speed!) in about half a minute; it didn’t so much fly into hillside as drop onto it. With the valley floor a mere 400 feet lower than the 1085″ MSL impact point, it’d have crashed anywhere; at least the hillside was relatively empty, and no-one else was affected.

    A big factor in this flight was that the valley where the accident occurred was cloudy; apparently it usually isn’t, and there are no aviation weather reports covering that, so until he actually reached the valley, the pilot would have expected to be able to continue “scud-running” to his destination, as he probably did many times before.

  • I’m familiar with the immediate area, having worked on a project, probably within 1-2 miles of the crash site. The hills are quite steep and the area between the 101 and Agoura Rd. is a relatively narrow band before the hills to the south rise dramatically. From my room, on the 4th floor of a hotel on Agoura Road, the window looked straight into the side of a hill. It’s not a place I’d want to be flying if I was anywhere close to the ground. But here’s the thing; you wouldn’t know just how abrupt the terrain is unless you had seen it close up. Flying over it with 1,000 feet of ground clearance would never give you a clue as to how it looks once you are at an altitude below the hilltops.

    It might be that the pilot was looking for the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Dept Helipad as a way to get out of the soup and ran into terrain. It would be a hard place to fly an approach if you weren’t intimately familiar with the immediate area.

    Speculation to follow. I would not be surprised if the cause is found to be continued VFR into Instrument conditions. That is not to fault the pilot. Considering the terrain and the proximity of the ocean, conditions could deteriorate very fast. Weather-wise, it was probably a situation that was quite familiar but the added factor of terrain made it much more dangerous. Choppers are different than airplanes in that they can stop without falling to the ground. The pilot may well have been highly skilled and just got into an unexpected set of circumstances.

    As I said, this is speculative and represents nothing more than a bit of opinion on my part. My condolences on the loss of life.

    • This pilot had apparently flown this route or something close to it many many times before. The only thing I can think is that with poor visibility he became confused.

    • I saw this in the news too. I am not aware of commercial operators in the US requiring a specific license for their instrument-rated pilots to fly IFR but it may be to do with training requirements.

      In general, if the weather is fine but things change, the pilot is expected to divert in order to remain visual, even if that means returning to where they started.

      • Yes you are correct, he could go back but what if the weather has closed in behind him? I’m ma IFR-it. Better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6.

  • Minor detail: The ATC are talking about the helicopter following the 118 freeway, not the 101. The freeway through Calabasas is the 101. The 118 is much further north (and further from the sea) and goes through a completely different gap in the hills.

    Also I thought I heard somewhere that no helicopter is rated for single-pilot IFR. Is that so? Jon

    • The flight crossed Burbank and Van Nuys airport airspaces, and Van Nuys had operations to the South, so the helicopter had to go “the long way around” both airports and used the 118 for navigation in this area. But west of Van Nuys, the pilot eventually turned south and entered the hills along the 101. Crossing the mountains along the 118 would have been more difficult with low clouds, as the valley floor is several hundred feet higher, and the terrain cuts are much narrower in places than along the 101.

      Helicopters can be certified for single-pilot IFR, but not many are: it requires redundant systems (electrical, hydraulic, even two headsets for radio communications) and suitable avionics that provide the helicopter with reliable stability (more than is required for dual-pilot IFR). The S-76 does have single-pilot IFR certified variants; I believe the NTSB will be examining if this equipment was installed and maintained in the accident helicopter.

      While looking this up, I have found references to various regulatory initiatives designed to make single-pilot IFR more widely available, since it is hoped that this will reduce the number of flights conducted in marginal VFR. A focus is on allowing “Point-in-Space” approaches, which I understand to be GPS approaches to helipads that don’t have any other ILS approaches; such an approach could also serve as an alternate to the same airport that has an ILS, alleviating the need to carry extra fuel to reach a different alternate.

      • Thanks Mendel. I started to list all the freeways but then thought I was probably being self-indulgent as I know them (I used to live near there). I didn’t consider the confusion it might cause.

        I believe that whether a helicopter is certified for single-pilot VFR varies by country but I haven’t had a chance to look this up.

      • I second Sylvia in saying thanks.

        Still, it does strike me as a bit weird that, coming out of Van Nuys airspace to the northeast, and following the 118 (en route to Camarillo) one would then turn south and go the 101 way. Maybe things look a little different (smaller?) when you’re up there at 120 knots or so.

        Not a pilot here, so I dunno. But I would not recommend that turn south in a car. ;-)

        Jon

  • Island Express Holding Corporation, a Part 135 Charter Operation was only certified to fly VFR so Ara Zobayan, the helicopter pilot did not have the option to file an IFR plan. Mr. Zobayan did hold IFR Helicopter type certificate but how often was he able to practice those skills. It would have been his dime because IEHC would not pay for that expense.

    Here is some insight in Helicopter Operations. A Scott Monroe who is an EMS Helicopter Pilot who has an IFR rating for rotorcraft. It is interesting to listen to the insights that he has on the Sikorsky S-76B N27EX fatal helicopter crash.

  • Is an IFR flight plan only be filed if the aircraft is flying airport to airport?
    Can an IFR flight plan be filed if the aircraft is flying from an airport to a non-airport location-like the Mamba Sports Academy playing field? A moot point anyway because of the Business Certificate rating held by Island Express.

    • The Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks doesn’t seem to have a playing field nearby, going by Google Maps? The helicopter was going to Camarillo Airport, where a driver was waiting for the passengers.

  • A very lively discussion.
    My experience with helicopters is very limited although, as a humourous aside, I was once on a helo transfer from Boston Logan Airport to Hanscom Field and was given control of a Bell 222. The pilot, mistakenly, assumed that I was also rotary-wing qualified. He told me what landmarks to follow and engaged in conversation with the other passengers behind us. He did not supect anything until I landed. He told me that I seemed “a bit rusty on helos”. When I asked him why he said that, he told me that I “made the approach and landing like a fixed-wing pilot”. When I told him that I WAS a fixed-wing pilot and only had been in a helicopter twice before – as a passenger – his reaction was “sh.. and I did not even watch you!”
    But back to the subject of this sad accident; the video link posted by James Russell gives comments by a helicopter pilot from the local area. They make eminent sense, even if we are all speculating here. The last words of course will be spoken in due time by the experts, the official investigators.
    – Stalling. A rotary wing aircraft does not stall the same way as a fixed-wing aircraft. Both of course need lift, created in this case by a rotor. The blades must be rotating to act as wings, the forward speed of the helicopter itself is irrelevant – but only to a certain extent.
    – The weather conditions, after an intitial period well within the ability of an experienced pilot, seem to have become increasingly challenging for a VFR flight in an area with high terrain. Press reports and comments from others here on this forum suggest that situational awareness may have been a very important issue.
    – The pilot was IFR rated, but the company was not licenced to execute IFR operations.
    – I don’t know the requirement for one or two pilots, etc. But it may be assumed that for commercial operators different regulations (FAR 135) would come into play, requiring procedures, manuals, crew re-currency training and equipment such as autopilot, FDR and CVR to be installed and operational. All leading to extra cost. The advantage of a helicopter is that it can take-off and land on small, unprepared locations without radio aids, but also without the obstruction charts and all the things required for take-off and landing under IFR. Which would to a large degree negate the advantage of using a helicopter in the first place. Mendel mentions two headsets for single crew IFR oprations. I never heard of that, I think that this may be a slip: more likely this is a requirement to have available – and use under IFR – a headset with a boom mike, rather than a hand-held microphone and speakers.
    To return to our discussion and taking into account the comments by Scott Monroe, the helicopter pilot in the video:
    – In general, the local weather is mainly VMC.
    – That raises the first question: Even if IFR rated, how current was the pilot? Scott Monroe mentions that his experience level was high, but unlike in European jurisdictions, a rating in the USA always remains in the licence which will remain in possession of the pilot for life. In Europe, either the entire licence is re-issued annually, or an additional page with the current ratings and qualifications is issued to replace the previous one. Under FAA rules, currency and competency checks will revalidate them almost instantly, in contrast to Europe where a full rating course including written and practical examinations may be required for re-instatement of licence or ratings.
    – What the video reveals is interesting: Monroe mentions certain flight conditions where the vortex from the tips of the rotor blades can actually be “sucked in”, causing substantial disturbance and loss of lift, requiring acceleration to recover.
    – Monroe also mentions that it is almost impossible to hover in IMC, unless the helicopter has equipment like an autopilot able to peform a hover. Certainly – if I quote him correctly – impossible for a single-crew operator who inadvertently gets caught in very bad weather conditions (IMC – Monroe incorrectly called it “IFR”, two related but different concepts). A slip of the tongue, no doubt. I only wanted to point it out.
    Monroe also mentions the possibility that the pilot may have lost control whilst looking for a nearby sheriff’s helipad where he could have made a precautionary landing.
    – The possibility of a mechanical failure has not yet been established. But if this had been the case, in a situation where the pilot already was under increasing pressure, this could well have been a contributing factor. The Sikorsky 76B is a twin-engined machine. It may have been close to maximum weight. A Bell 222 pilot explained that after lift-off the procedure is to accelerate first before climbing out. The reason, if I understood her correctly, is that if an engine fails the remaining engine may not have enough power for a hover. The height may be insufficient for an autorotation or an immediate engine failure drill, so the pilot picks up forward speed first which gives extra lift before climbing away.
    As mentioned: I am not a helicopter pilot; the following is my own interpretation of what she told me.
    If an engine fails in conditions of very poor visibility, where the pilot quite probably would have been flying only a bit faster than hover, an engine failure may have precluded an immediate climb. It may also have caused a loss of spatial orientation making a crash inevitable. Reports, as well as Monroe in the video, mention an initial climb followed by a turn towards high terrain and a very high rate of descent. From an already low altitude a crash would have been unavoidable.

    • Rudy thanks for your discussing the finer points of the Blancoliro-Scott Monroe Video.
      I have stated many times I am not a pilot just have a keen interest in aviation. Some much about aviation requires a healthy dose of learning, constantly reading, getting the terminology down pat. It is always a tragedy when any soul loses their life in an fatal aviation accident. If I am ever able to obtain a pilot license of some type rating understanding what went wrong will be beneficial to me and I think others in the long run. I come here because I enjoy Rudy’s and other very experienced pilots giving their insights. Another more obvious reason is Sylvia’s skill in weaving the factual information into a meaningful story.

    • The helicopter was traveling at over 100 kts when it entered the descending turn that ended in the crash. Hovering or a vortex stall were not an issue here.

      The S-76 is rated for 12 passengers. This helicopter had an 8-passenger interior (and a ninth passenger potentially seated up front, I presume); most being active athletes and 3 youths among them, presumably with no luggage, I don’t expect they would have been overweight, and the helicopter did sustain a 1500 fpm climb without losing speed earlier.

      • @ Mendel. I was perplexed when Juan Browne, the individual who interviewed Mr. Monroe asked the question and or brought up the matter of the vortex stall. I thought he clouded the issue. Probably an unnamed source mentioned that on a discussion forum and Juan thought he would address that “issue”.

    • You should be careful with stories like that. The way the internet operates, some yahoo might read it and go viral with the news that

      “Experienced pilot and aviation reporter Rudy Jakma has evidence that a passenger was operating the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, killing the pilot and all eight passengers, including famous basketball player Kobe Bryant.

      “Kobe’s pilot, Ara Zobayan, allowed one of the passengers to take control of the 28 year old Sikorsky S-76B under the impression that the passenger was qualified to fly it.

      “But, says Jakma, although the passenger held a private pilot’s license, he was not certified for helicopters, and had never flown one. In fact, this was only the third time he had ever been in a helicopter.

      “Jakma also claims that Zobayan not only allowed the passenger to take charge of the flight, but failed to monitor his actions, preferring instead to focus his attention on conversation with the other passengers.”

      By the time you find out about this and try to deny that you said anything like that, it will have become firmly embedded in the infosphere, and you will have become famous as the investigator who solved the mystery of Kobe Bryant’s last flight.

      The fact that there was no qualified pilot among the eight passenger fatalities won’t even make a dent in the universal belief in this dramatic exposé.

      • Your theory makes a lot of sense, Harrow. I bet the missing CVR contains the phrase “I’ve seen you do this so many times, how hard can it be?” ;-)

        Rudy’s comments are always well worth a read. I found his pointing out the differences between US and European regulations especially instructive. But for part 135 pilots, it seems it’s not that easy to (re)affirm their IFR rating: “c) The instrument proficiency check required by paragraph (a) of this section consists of an oral or written equipment test and a flight check under simulated or actual IFR conditions. The equipment test includes questions on emergency procedures, engine operation, fuel and lubrication systems, power settings, stall speeds, best engine-out speed, propeller and supercharger operations, and hydraulic, mechanical, and electrical systems, as appropriate. The flight check includes navigation by instruments, recovery from simulated emergencies, and standard instrument approaches involving navigational facilities which that pilot is to be authorized to use.” (CFR 135.297)

  • Harrow, I appreciate your concern, but I cannot be held responsible for nonsense that others write. I have admitted, freely and under my own name, that I have handled a helicopter, at the time under the reasonable assumption to have been supervised by a pilot who was an employee of the same company for which I worked as a fixed-wing pilot.
    If you, or anyone else for that matter, want to make up a fantasy about who was flying the S76, there is little I can do about it. But yes, some yahoos or yobos do make up nonsense and yes, sometimes this can get firmly stuck in the public’s mind. The best example, I guess, is the term “black box”, coined by presumably a yobo journalist who did not even know, or bother, that he was referring to the FDR and CVR, bright orange objects often adorned with reflective strips to aid recovery. But to be honest, I think that the circle of regular readers of Sylvia’s blog is relatelely small and consists of followers who are genuinely interested in trying to learn more about aviation, not to present distorted facts.
    Mendel, I am no expert in the finer details of the FARs, thanks for your explanation. It seems that I overlooked that the helicopter was flying at 100 kts, making the hypothetical failure less likely. Which again raises the question why the pilot was keeping such a speed if he was entering IMC conditions. Maybe the visibility deteriorated unexpectedly and rapidly before he could slow down?
    And I am not familiar with the single-engine performance of the S76B. All I did was try to recall what a Bell 222 pilot told me (not the pilot of the one I was in, but another female pilot working for the same company, Digital Equipment Corp.). The company HQ was in Maynard, Mass. and the (substantial) flight dept. was based at Hanscom Field KBED.
    BTW, Mendel, I still think that it is maybe not easier but probably a lot quicker to get recurrent for a rating or qualification under the FAA. As an example: I had more than 2200 hours on the C500 Citation. I obtained my rating in 1979 with Flight Safety in Wichita, Ks. When I joined Digital Equipment in 1986 I did the same course again. The operator was corporate, in both cases the aircraft were on the US register (N26498 and N121C). My FAA licence was a “restricted CPL”, rating IF and C500 “US test passed”.
    I obtained a rating in my European licence – at the time an Irish ATPL on the strength of my FAA rating.
    When, in 2003, I was offered a job here to fly a UK registered C500, similar to the first Citation I had flown, I had to renew my rating in my JAA ATPL. This one had been issued by the Irish Aviation Authority in lieu of my old Irish ATPL I assumed that I would need a refresher course and a simulator check, but the IAA informed me that I would have to do the entire rating again. The letter stated literally: “AS IF YOU HAVE NEVER FLOWN THE AIRCRAFT BEFORE”. The process took more than two months because I also needed TSA permission to undergo flight training in the USA (Flight Safety in San Antonio, TX) which required me to fly to Paris for a finger printing. This all because the European facilities in Paris and Farnborough were fully subscribed. It was also needed to book a JAA authorised examiner. This kind of red tape, I am convinced, is never applied to American pilots.

  • PS: I was not totally correct when I wrote that in 1986 “I did the same course again”. I was doing the entire rating with another DEC employed pilot who did an initial rating. I was only due a refresher, but it was easier to team us together. So essentially my first rating was still valid, albeit for corporate or private operations under FAR 25.

    • Yes, European type ratings expire after 7 years if you haven’t kept current, US type ratings don’t and CFR 121.439 (b) reads like it is very easy to regain currency when it lapses.

  • Have you all noticed lately that NTSB is taking about 20 days to issue a Preliminary Report on Accidents and Incidents. I thought they usually issue a PR within 10-12 days. I keep checking their NTSB Database page and they still have not issued a preliminary on the Sikorsky S-76 N72EX Fatal Accident.

  • The NTSB has published an “investigative update”, which I expect means we’re still getting a more detailed preliminary report later. It’s here: https://ntsb.gov/investigations/Documents/DCA20MA059-Investigative-Update.pdf

    The most surprising fact for me was that the pilot told ATC that he was going to climb to 4000 feet. This action would have prudently put him safely above the clouds and above the terrain. We may wonder what kept him from achieving this goal.

    Was it
    – spatial disorientation and failure to use the autopilot,
    – a mechanical failure, or
    – a medical issue?

  • @Mendel, Thank you.
    The Great internet Service, or no service from Charter Spectrum here in the Carolina’s was down from 0900 til 1500 hrs. I Checked before that and did not see anything. I will look at it in a little while. But your comment is interesting.

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