Scott Lowe is a fixed-wing private pilot and blogger in Glendale who has been following the fatal helicopter crash that took the lives of basketball star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the seven other people on board the aircraft, including pilot Ara Zobayan.
We asked him for his take on the doomed flight based on the info that’s been made public.
Was this Kobe’s private helicopter? What was it like?
This is a really nice helicopter. It’s quiet, it’s comfortable, it’s smooth, it’s fast, and it’s roomy. This is like a flying Cadillac. The charter fee for similar helicopters is about $5,000 per hour. Kobe had a long-term charter agreement and at one point it had a custom wrap. He used to take it from his home in Orange County to the Staples Center.
How did you hear about the accident?
I stumbled upon it on Twitter on Sunday morning. I was planning a flight to Camarillo myself and canceled it due to the weather. There was haze, some areas of fog, and a low cloud layer. Most of Southern California had low visibility. The area [Zobayan] was in had a mixture of low clouds and rising terrain, and that’s a dangerous combination.
What do you mean by “rising terrain”?
[It appears] he was trying to stay below a fairly low cloud layer, so that’s fairly low to the ground. There’s a narrow corridor below the clouds and above the freeway traffic, with hills on either side. Most of the freeways in L.A. tend to cut through mountain passes. It’s very common to fly over freeways since they’re a big obvious landmark and a reliable way to find where you’re going. There’s a part of the 101 that rises up and ascends and the hills rise up.
What route was he taking?
Once he got to Downtown L.A. he followed the 5 to Pacoima. Burbank airport asked him to hold outside of their airspace so he was circling around. It’s more efficient to maintain forward flight than to hover. It’s less demanding on the pilot and you use less fuel. He was over Glendale asking for permission and they asked him to hold off for a few minutes. It was like waiting in line for the ATM. No big deal.
How did he get to Calabasas?
He asked to transition west along the 134 to the 101. They told him that the Van Nuys airport had a lot of traffic so they sent him north on the 5 to the 118 to the 101. He had an iPad with a GPS map but when you’re flying nothing is more accurate than looking out the window. You’re not just looking at a pin on a map you’re looking for obstacles and air traffic.
So all that circling was not unusual?
The airspace in Southern California is some of the most complicated in the country. Burbank airport’s airspace goes all the way from the Crescenta Valley to Whiteman Airport in Pacoima and then west of there is Van Nuys. On one side of Burbank you’ve got Griffith Park up to about 2,000 feet, and on the other side the Verdugos at around 3,000 feet. On a clear day you could go around controlled airspace or fly over the mountaintops. If you’re staying low you don’t have many options. He was knocking on the door of the Burbank airport and they said hang on a second. When he got to Van Nuys airport they asked him if he’d like to have flight following, which is like traffic advisories. He took it, canceled it, then a few minutes later he asked for it again. They told him he was too low for them to see on their radar for flight following purposes. At that point he would have been a few minutes from Camarillo air space.
How fast was he flying?
Aircraft have transponders that report our position and a code that identifies the aircraft every few seconds so basically it’s like a breadcrumb of altitude, speed, and where the aircraft is. You can import this into Google Earth and see how fast he was going and how high he was. As he approached flying along the 101 he was going 140 knots, or 150 miles per hour. As he climbed to avoid the cloud layer he slowed to 127 mph and then as he descended he accelerated to about 180 mph.
He was climbing before the crash?
He reported that he was climbing to avoid clouds and then the aircraft ended up making a left turn and a rapid descent. The exact why is unknown but a possibility is that he was trying to turn around and went into that low cloud layer. Without outside reference to a horizon it’s very easy to become quickly disoriented. It’s like you were in a car and someone just painted your entire windshield white. Inadvertently flying into a cloud layer is very dangerous and kills a lot of pilots every year.
Why did the pilot keep pressing on if conditions were bad?
That’s the question isn’t it? This pilot was very qualified and very experienced. He had a ton of hours—over 8,200 hours in the air. He had advance ratings and had been a pilot with that company for 10 years. Nobody wants to cut a flight short and be the one to turn around and say, “We’re not getting there.” It’s unknown if that’s an issue here, but it’s got to be a lot of pressure for a charter pilot.
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