photo by Wikimedia Commons user miikkahoo
It will be months before investigators complete their report into the crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others, but virtually everyone in the aviation community expects that report to contain the acronym CFIT: controlled flight into terrain.
To put it bluntly, an aircraft that was functioning normally was flown into the earth.
These disasters used to happen to commercial airliners with terrifying frequency. In December 1972, Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Everglades on a flight from New York, killing 101 passengers and crew; 75 survived. The flight crew was distracted by a burnt-out landing gear indicator light and failed to notice the plane losing altitude when the autopilot was inadvertently disconnected.
Almost a year later, Delta’s Flight 723 crashed short of the runway at Boston’s Logan Airport after a botched instrument landing in inclement weather. Eighty-seven of the 89 people aboard the DC-9 died at the scene. The other two later died of their injuries.
December 1974 brought yet another CFIT disaster. TWA Flight 514 was diverted from Washington’s National Airport to Dulles in stormy weather. Poor communication between flight crew and ground controllers sent the plane smashing into Mount Weather, Virginia, at 1,670 feet above sea level in a swirling snowstorm. All 92 souls aboard the Boeing 727 perished. The crash also drew unwanted attention to Mount Weather, a key site in the federal government’s emergency plan to preserve the government in the event of nuclear war. (On the same day, a second Boeing 727 that had been chartered to pick up the Baltimore Colts football team in Buffalo, New York, crashed near New York’s Harriman State Park, killing three crew aboard the otherwise empty aircraft. This crash was due to an icing-induced aerodynamic stall – the result of the crew’s failure to activate an external heater on an airspeed sensor – and was not a CFIT.)
Aviation history is full of stories like these. The ones in this country involving large commercial jets are decades old because, beginning in the 1970s, we required new aircraft placed in service here to have electronic systems to alert pilots to impending danger. Earlier, less-sophisticated ground proximity warning systems have been displaced on today’s big jets by digital screens that project terrain ahead of the aircraft. These systems are known as Class A terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS). Even if darkness or weather obscures the landscape, a TAWS-equipped pilot can “see” whether the aircraft is flying into a mountain, like TWA Flight 514, or will fall short of a runway, like Delta Flight 723.
The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter that carried Bryant, one of his daughters, six other passengers and a pilot did not have a Class A TAWS. The system was not required. As both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have reported, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended as far back as 2006 that such systems be mandatory on commercial aircraft including helicopters in the Sikorsky’s size class. But the Federal Aviation Administration implemented that rule much later, and even then only applied it to air ambulances and medical helicopters. The NTSB said at the time that it considered the FAA’s response “unacceptable.”
The crash in which Bryant died is apt to be revealed as a series of misjudgments and miscalculations with a tragic outcome. Pilot Ara Zobayan could have made the flight under instrument flight rules (IFR) with continuous ground control guidance through clear and safe airspace. But in the congested airways around Los Angeles, such a trip would have been no faster than driving on the traffic-clogged freeways. So Zobayan took off under visual flight rule (VFR) conditions.
In VFR flights, even an instrument-rated pilot on a fully equipped aircraft must stay clear of clouds except in emergencies. This was very difficult on that California morning, as a deep layer of damp ocean air pushed far into the canyons and valleys of the LA basin. Rather than follow the coastline, Zobayan was forced inland. This route required him to pass near downtown and then through the busy airspace around the airports in Burbank and Van Nuys to the north. After holding the Sikorsky there to let other traffic proceed, controllers allowed Zobayan to follow highways leading him west – but under instructions not to climb above 2,500 feet.
As he drew closer once again to the coast, Zobayan had to clear hills that approach 2,000 feet above sea level. But he could not fly in cloud, and he was under instructions not to go above 2,500 feet to find good visibility. His only option was to try to follow the roads through the hills, wending his way below the clouds that were likely already down below the hilltops.
I was warned about this scenario when I was getting my own pilot’s license. “Scud running” is when a pilot who is not allowed to fly in or above the clouds follows a deteriorating ceiling right into the ground. Everyone is trained not to do it. Instead, you are taught to remind yourself that it’s more important to turn back and find a safe place to land than to try to force your way through inhospitable weather. But human nature is to fixate on a goal. Such a drive might be particularly strong when turning around means saying “no can do” to a sports legend and valued client, not to mention three teenage girls eager to get to their basketball event along with their parents and coaches.
Technology won’t compensate for bad decisions. Yet in a situation like the one Zobayan confronted, it can provide a lifesaving final line of defense against human error.
We won’t know the full story of Kobe Bryant’s final flight for some time. The National Transportation Safety Board will rightly take its time to try to create the fullest possible picture of the crash. But those of us who pay attention to these things already know that the investigators’ report will contain many elements that we fervently want to leave in the aviation history books.