New York: Transportation Authority Finds Pilot at Fault in Crash That Killed Kobe Bryant

The National Transportation Safety Board today made its final determination in the January 26, 2020, helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others, finding that the mostly likely cause was that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, became disorientated after flying into clouds, at which point he lost control and flew into a hillside.

A contributing factor, the board declared, was that Zobayan likely felt self-imposed pressure to successfully complete his mission, which was to deliver Bryant and members of his daughter’s basketball team to a tournament taking place in Calabasas, California.

The findings dinged Zobayan’s employer, Island Express Helicopters Inc., for “inadequate review and oversight of the safety management processes.” The conclusions provided on Tuesday were largely consistent with analysis previously published in New York magazine and elsewhere.

The fatal flight had taken off 40 minutes before from an airport in Orange County and traveled north under a low overcast before turning west in an attempt to cross over a mountain pass in order to reach Calabasas, 17 miles to the west. But the pass was shrouded in clouds. Island Express helicopters are only legally allowed to fly under visual flight rules, meaning that its pilots could orient themselves by seeing the ground below them.

At the public hearing held before the NTSB board voted to approve the findings, members noted that Zobayan had ignored his own pilot training. Once he found himself in whiteout conditions, he should have leveled the helicopter, kept flying straight ahead, and slowed down. Instead he maintained high speed and attempted to climb twice as fast as recommended.

He might nonetheless have succeeded in punching up through the thousand-foot-thick cloud layer if he had managed to keep the helicopter flying straight ahead. To do this, he would have had to maintain intent focus on the flight instrument panel in front of him, lest he succumb to “the leans,” an illusion caused by the vestibular sensation that one is in a turn when one is not. However, a few seconds after he entered the clouds, an air-traffic controller asked him to press a button that would signal the helicopter’s location on the controller’s radar screen. This required him to move and shift his attention in a way that “could adversely affect his ability to effectively interpret the instruments and maintain control of the helicopter,” according to NTSB investigator Dujuan Sevillian.

Seconds later, he radioed to the controller that he was climbing to 4,000 feet. But he was already in a steep dive that would cause him to impact the ground at 184 mph.

Far from being an unusual type of accident, crashes resulting from pilots flying into clouds and becoming disoriented are a persistent problem. On average, there have been one of these fatal crashes every six months for the past decade.

The board noted that the fatal crash didn’t mean that Zobayan was a bad pilot, noting that he was generally held in high regard by colleagues and clients. As lead investigator Bill English put it, “Good people can make a bad decision, and we really want to get to the bottom of why.”

This article first ran on February 9, 2021 in New York magazine.

Vanity Fair: Kobe Bryant’s Tragic Flight

8:45 A.M.

On a Gloomy Sunday Morning last winter, Ara Zobayan stood in the Atlantic Aviation terminal at John Wayne International Airport in Orange County, California, and contemplated his flight-planning app. The helicopter pilot’s software showed a blanket of clouds covering the city. Beneath the thousand-foot-thick layer lay patchy haze. The poor visibility meant that large swaths of the region were unflyable.

This was a problem. The charter company OC Helicopters had hired Zobayan’s employer, Island Express Helicopters, to fly Kobe Bryant and seven companions to Camarillo, an airport on the coast 80 miles to the northwest.

Completing the mission was important to Zobayan. Island Express was a small operation, with six helicopters and as many pilots, and it ran on thin margins, according to former Island Express pilot Kurt Deetz. Its business mostly consisted of shuttling passengers back and forth between Long Beach and Catalina Island, a tourist destination 20 miles off the coast. Custom charter flights for high-net-worth individuals were less frequent but far more lucrative.

Of all the company’s VIPs, Bryant was the I-est. According to Deetz, not only did Bryant fly Island Express regularly—for any crosstown trip that a normal person would just drive—but his patronage lent the company a luster. “Kobe was their pride and joy,” says Deetz. “It was like, ‘Look at us, we’ve made it.’ ” Keeping Bryant happy was job one. And as with any client, that meant getting him where he wanted to go. Continue reading Vanity Fair: Kobe Bryant’s Tragic Flight

New York: Two-Mile Nosedive by a Boeing 737 in Indonesia As Yet Unexplained

Authorities have located the black boxes for Sriwijaya Air Flight 182, the Boeing 737 that crashed Saturday in Indonesian waters after it plunged suddenly and precipitously four minutes after takeoff. The data they contain should clarify why the plane dove 10,000 feet nearly vertically in just 15 seconds and struck the Java Sea at nearly 500 miles per hour, instantly killing the 62 people aboard.

The speed of the descent implies that the plane remained substantially intact, with the engines generating power right until the end. No mayday call was transmitted, nor did the emergency beacon transmit after impact. The speed of the impact likely shredded all but the rearmost portions of the aircraft.

Sriwijaya Air, Indonesia’s third largest airline, was founded in 2003. Before Saturday it had lost three 737s in bad landings but these accidents had not killed any passengers or crew. In 2019, half of its aircraft were temporarily grounded by regulators for safety reasons. Indonesian airlines overall have a notoriously poor safety record. In the past decade, nearly 700 people have died in air crashes in the country. Continue reading New York: Two-Mile Nosedive by a Boeing 737 in Indonesia As Yet Unexplained

New York: Kobe Bryant Pilot Deliberately Broke Flight Rules

Image taken from ATSB report shows crash site and overlying cloud layer that Kobe’s pilot flew into.

Today the National Transport Safety Board released its preliminary report into the January 26 helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others. For the first time, it revealed that moments before impact the pilot deliberately broke FAA regulations meant to prevent just such kinds of accidents.

As previously reported, in the minutes prior to the crash, pilot Ara Zobayan was flying just a few hundred feet over the floor of the San Fernando Valley, which lies at an elevation of 800 feet. An opaque layer of overcast clouds covered the area at an altitude of 1,900 feet. As Zobayan reached the southwestern edge of the valley and crossed into Calabasas, the ground below him climbed higher until he was zooming 150 mph over the road at scarcely more than 100 feet, with hillsides rising up on either side into the low clouds.

Technically, Zobayan was allowed by FAA regulations to fly this way. According to Visual Flight Rules, as long he could see at least half a mile and stayed out of the clouds, he’d remain legal. But it afforded him little margin for error. Evidently, he decided it would be safer or more comfortable to climb to a higher altitude where he would have better visibility and room for maneuver. At 9:45 a.m., according to the new NTSB report, Zobayan called air traffic control and told them that he was going to climb up above the cloud layers to an altitude of 4,000 feet, which would put him comfortably above the cloud tops at 2,400 feet.

Up there, he’d be well above the rugged terrain and be able to see for miles. The problem was that to get there, he’d have to climb through 500 vertical feet of white-out clouds. “Its absolutely deliberately breaking the VFR rules,” says Paul Cline, assistant professor of aviation at the City University of New York.

The reason flying up into a cloud layer is illegal is because there’s a high danger of exactly what happened: Without visual reference to the ground, a pilot becomes disoriented, loses track of which way is up, and augurs in to the ground.

Ironically, the new report also reveals that just nine months before the crash Zobayan had received proficiency training in “inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions and unusual attitude recovery” — in other words, the exact things that killed him.

This article appeared on February 7, 2020 in New York magazine.

Vanity Fair: The Dangers of Flying Rich

The very rich fly differently than you and me, and not just in terms of coach versus first class. They have helicopters and private jets to zip around the globe in privacy and comfort. But top-drawer travel budgets don’t necessarily afford anyone an extra measure of safety. In fact, just the opposite: Private air travel can come with risks that commercial passengers never take on.

Why? Because the rules are looser for the privileged—and when it comes to safety, that’s not to their advantage. Whereas the commercial airliners that ordinary schlubs are consigned to must conform to the most stringent regulations—what the FAA calls “Part 121”—chartered aircraft fall under a more lax set of rules called “Part 135,” and sometimes an even less strict set, “Part 91,” that covers noncommercial flying, such as when aircraft owners pilot the plane themselves. (The word part refers to the fact that the rules are organized into sections, or parts, of the government’s Code of Federal Regulations.)

The consequences of the different safety standards can be seen in accident statistics. According to data compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board, in 2018 there were six fatal Part 135 crashes resulting in 12 deaths, versus just one Part 121 accident resulting in a single death. This, despite the fact that nearly five times as many hours were flown under Part 121 as under Part 135. Continue reading Vanity Fair: The Dangers of Flying Rich

New York: Kobe Bryant’s Helicopter Likely Succumbed to Well-Known Danger

While the cause of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others has not yet been determined, the weather and terrain conditions in the Los Angeles area on Sunday were similar to those that have killed many helicopter pilots over the years, with fog and clouds masking rugged, rising terrain.  The reconstruction of his flight that follows is based on information from transponder data, air traffic control audio recordings, and my own experience as a pilot who was trained in the exact area where the incident took place.

Bryant’s helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76B built in 1991, took off shortly after 9 a.m. from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, which is located near the coast approximately 35 miles south of downtown LA. According to the New York Post, Bryant and the eight other passengers were heading to a basketball game at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, approximately 70 miles to the northwest. Over the course of the next 40 minutes the helicopter would trace a circuitous route around the Los Angeles basin as it negotiated mountains and busy airspace in three main phases: first, cutting across the broad coastal plain of central Los Angeles, then winding around the basin of the San Fernando Valley to its north, before a final ill-fated attempt to cross the rising terrain that led west to Thousand Oaks.

At takeoff a few minutes after 9 a.m., the weather was marginal, with a solid overcast at 1300 feet and visibility of about 5 miles in a thin haze. The pilot was flying according to “Visual Flight Rules,” or VFR, meaning that he was relying on his ability to see the terrain below him, and hence had to stay below the clouds. As an alternative, he could have contacted air traffic controllers and switched to “Instrument Flight Rules,” or IFR, that would have allowed him to climb up through the clouds. Controllers would have given him a series of waypoints to follow that would keep him well clear of terrain, dangerous weather, and other aircraft. Flying IFR, however, is time-consuming and constrains pilots to following the directions of controllers. “Southern California airspace is extremely busy, and they might tell you to wait an hour,” assistant professor of aviation at the City University of New York Paul Cline told me. “You’re just one of many waiting in line, and it doesn’t matter if you’re Kobe Bryant.”

So the helicopter continued under visual flight rules. Continue reading New York: Kobe Bryant’s Helicopter Likely Succumbed to Well-Known Danger

New York: Who’s Behind Those Mystery Drone Swarms? An Investigation

A month after swarms of drones began appearing over Colorado and Nebraska, their provenance remains a mystery. How to even start? Authorities have admonished that it’s illegal to shoot them down, and no one’s managed to intercept a tell-tale electronic signal. No one’s even managed to take a clear picture of one. But there might be another way.

The scope and persistence of the operation implies that some significant entity is behind them — someone, most likely, with too much to lose to risk operating without the necessary paperwork from the Federal Aviation Administration. Could the answer to the riddle lie within an FAA database?

There are two sets of records you’d want to explore because there are two processes under which the FAA permits commercial drone flight. The first is called Part 107. To operate under these guidelines, an operator gets a Remote Pilot Certificate and registers a drone with the FAA. They can then fly pretty much anywhere, so long as they follow certain restrictions: They can’t operate at night, or fly over people, or operate from a moving vehicle, for instance. If they want to do any of these things they need to apply for a waiver.

The second form of permission is called a Certificate of Authorization, or COA. In the past these have tended to be used by public agencies like the Department of the Interior and the branches of the military. These are fairly cumbersome to obtain, but once in hand allow an operator a good deal of freedom within a defined area. They’ve fallen out of favor in recent years, however, and a search of the FAA’s database suggests that the most recent ones expired in 2015. “Many agencies are choosing to operate under Part 107,” FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor explained via email. So we can forget about these.

Back to Part 107. Based on published accounts, the Colorado drones always fly at night, sometimes fly in coordinated swarms, and fly significant distances. To do all of these things, an operator would need waivers 107.29 (flying at night), 107.31 (flying beyond visual range of the operator), and 107.35 (multiple drones flown by one operator). Out of the thousands of waivers issued, only five companies were issued a waiver valid for all three. One of those has since gone out of business.

That leaves four. Continue reading New York: Who’s Behind Those Mystery Drone Swarms? An Investigation

Vanity Fair: How Trump’s Iran War Bluster Paved The Way for the Ukrainian Airliner Shoot-Down

What began Wednesday morning as a wild internet rumor had by lunchtime Thursday become close to a settled—though still scarcely imaginable—fact: that Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, a Boeing 737 with 176 people aboard, had crashed near Tehran not due to technical issues, as Iranian authorities initially claimed, but as a result of an Iranian antiaircraft missile strike.

While there was no direct evidence of a shoot-down in the first hours after the crash, the incident had seemed suspicious from the get-go. Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 took off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport at 6:12 a.m. local time, just hours after Iran’s military had launched multiple ballistic missiles at U.S. air bases in Iraq. President Trump had threatened that America would attack 52 targets in Iran if the country retaliated for the U.S. assassination of its top general, Qasem Soleimani; it stands to reason that Iranian air defense forces must have been on the highest possible state of alert. What’s more, the plane disappeared from air traffic control screens abruptly, and without the crew issuing a mayday—all suggestive of a sudden, catastrophic event. Trump’s bluster and unpredictability, lauded by some of his allies as a strategic virtue, almost certainly contributed to the conditions that allowed this grievous mistake to be made. This is the sort of thing that happens during a war.

For the first 24 hours, however, the U.S. and its allies said nothing about a shoot-down. Reuters reported that “the initial assessment of Western intelligence agencies was that the plane had suffered a technical malfunction.” Then, on Thursday, Newsweek quoted “one Pentagon and one U.S. senior intelligence official” as saying that the plane had been shot down. Hours later, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau confirmed the story at a press conference. Continue reading Vanity Fair: How Trump’s Iran War Bluster Paved The Way for the Ukrainian Airliner Shoot-Down

New York: It Sure Looks Like the Ukrainian 737 May Have Been Accidentally Shot Down in Iran

In the wake of the crash of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 in Tehran this morning, two schools of thought quickly emerged. The first accepted the explanation given by the Iranian authorities: that the three-year-old 737-800, which had taken off minutes before, had suffered engine failure before plunging into the ground at Khalaj Abad, killing all 176 aboard. The second, widespread on the internet, was that the Kyiv-bound plane had been accidentally shot down by an Iranian air defense missile.

Given that the facts are just starting to trickle in, it’s far too early to say with any certainty what actually happened. Based on past experience, much of what has currently been reported as fact will turn out to be wrong. The true cause may very well turn out to be something that no one has considered yet. But given the information we have right now, the second explanation makes more sense than the first.

According to flight data recorded by Flightradar 24, the plane took off at 2:42 universal time, or 6.12 a.m. local time, a little more than three hours after Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases hosting US troops. Three minutes later, it had reached an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet and was continuing to climb at a steady ground speed of 276 knots, or 318 mph. Then, abruptly, its dropped. A state-run Iranian media outlet released a video that appeared to show the aircraft descending in flames before impacting the ground. Continue reading New York: It Sure Looks Like the Ukrainian 737 May Have Been Accidentally Shot Down in Iran

New York: About Those Mystery Drone Swarms Over Colorado…

The latest mystery to manifest in American skies: swarms of drones that fly by night over the Great Plains. Since the middle of December, residents within a 200-mile swath of eastern Colorado and western Nebraska have reported coordinated groups of unmanned aerial vehicles that fly between dusk and midnight. The craft have wingspans of about six feet and at times fly in synchronized grid patterns, dozens at a time, as if mapping the landscape below.

To state the obvious: It is ominous that so many robot planes can operate for so long, over so huge an area, without anyone — even the authorities — able to figure out who’s operating them or why.

“It’s definitely unusual activity,” James Brueggeman, the sheriff of Perkins County, Nebraska, told the Lincoln Journal-Star. “That’s what we’re investigating and trying to get to bottom of: What is the origin of the flights or the purpose of the flights?”

In response to a query from New York, the Federal Aviation Administration said via email: “Multiple FAA divisions and government agencies are investigating these reports. We do not comment on the details of open investigations.”

The fact that so many drones have been able to operate for so long over such a wide area points to the growing gap between the capabilities of drones and the ability of authorities to track and control them. At present, the FAA has no way to systematically track who’s doing what, where. Continue reading New York: About Those Mystery Drone Swarms Over Colorado…