Except for Helicopters. With Reward, Comes Risk

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Crashes are crashes, but when one involves a major celebrity, as the Kobe Bryant accident did on Sunday, the daily press launches into frenzy mode. Audiences do their part by clicking on everything published and the resultant feedback loop can yield some pretty dodgy reporting. The need-to-know-right-now impetus sometimes puts reporters—even those with aviation expertise—in a knowledge deficit. Specifically, this headline from the Washington Post: Kobe Bryant’s Pilot Received Clearance to Fly in Poor Weather Before Crash. The lead on the story clarifies just one thing: The reporters and editors had not so much as vague understanding of what they were trying to explain.

They might have been shocked to learn that 100 airline crews in the 15 seconds it takes to read this sentence got clearances to fly in poor weather, too. There’s a distinction to be made having to do with graduated risk that’s difficult to convey to a lay audience with a short attention span and a predilection for black-and-white cognition.

The article was referring to the pilot’s use of special VFR with “special” chosen by the FAA probably because when it was formulated, no one could think of a better word, like conditional or limited. “Special” makes it sound elite, as though only certain people are allowed to have it. It’s an understandable error and one that’s not so misplaced, maybe. Did you remember that the “except for helicopters” phrase allows helicopters to use special VFR almost everywhere, including Class B and Class C, while us fixed-wing drudges are more limited? I didn’t. I had to refresh myself with a read of 91.157. (Appendix D lists the airports where fixed-wing SVFR isn’t allowed It’s a long list.)

Have you ever used SVFR? Many pilots haven’t because unless there are peculiar constraints, an IFR clearance is just easier. I’ve bolted out of IMC airports a few times on a special when the subsequent scud run was an acceptable risk. Across Long Island Sound from Bridgeport to Islip comes to mind although why I thought it was a good idea at the time eludes me.

To fly under SVFR, the reported ground visibility has to be at least a mile—or flight vis the same if ground isn’t reported—and you have to remain clear of clouds. There’s no ceiling requirement. For night ops, the pilot has to be instrument rated and equipped and night or day, must request the clearance; ATC can’t suggest it. This allows for visual flight in some downright scuzzy conditions—say 800 and a mile. Except for helicopters. They don’t have the visibility requirement but just have to remain clear of clouds. Even scuzzier, potentially. With the reward comes risk and a tricky bit of it at that. When does fog become a cloud and how do you remain clear of it?

SVFR allows for graduated risk in decision making. If CAVU represents the least risk, IFR in VMC is perhaps a little less, IFR in IMC a little more and SVFR is a little more than that. This kind of fine-point aeronautical decision making is difficult to explain to non-aviation people and even some pilots aren’t entirely comfortable with it. But it exists for a reason and is there for the using.

In the case of the Bryant crash, when the pilot initially called to transition SVFR from Santa Ana through the Burbank Class C airspace, ATC spun him for 15 minutes while it sorted out some IFR traffic, just as it’s required to do. SVFRs aren’t supposed to delay IFR traffic. When the helicopter finally transitioned Burbank into the Van Nuys Class D, the airport was reporting visibility 2.5 miles and 1100 feet. That’s just a half mile less than basic VFR for Class D and weather I’d certainly consider for SVFR. I suspect many helicopter pilots would as well.

Evidently, however, the higher terrain to the northwest was obscured by cloud and I’m sure that’s what the NTSB will be focusing on first if not in order. As pilots, we owe it to ourselves to tune out the noise surrounding SVFR as some kind of risky decision of itself. It isn’t. Nor should this accident discourage you from using it when appropriate, or at the very least, understanding it well enough.

Crashes involving high-profile celebrities like Kobe Bryant tend to be resonant for a long time and far beyond their actual importance to air safety. They can attract unwanted regulatory scrutiny when the political class gets involved and wishes to appear to be doing something about it. We can only hold our breath.

On the other hand, irrespective of regulations, of fault, of pilot judgment, they can also serve to illuminate—for the umpteenth time—risks we may not have thought about for a while. Or ever. VFR into IMC or CFIT, either of which this S-76 crash may very well be, continues to kill in GA. If that turns out to be true, with nine dead, it will be one of the worst such accidents in years.

Recalling the horrible Reba McEntire band crash in March 1991, that accident didn’t change the system, nor did it result in new regulation. But it revealed a yawning gap in a pilot’s ignorance of departure procedures and terrain awareness. Not to mention a misfire in FAA oversight. The aircraft’s owner insisted it was a Part 91 sales demo flight while the tour operator running the flight said it was a revenue flight. Had it been conducted as the latter, the accident might never have happened. I’m sure the NSTB will consider that, too, as we all should.

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39 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the article Paul. Just wanted to be pedantic and offer up that you can get SVFR as a non IR pilot. In order to fly SVFR at night, you need the rating, however.

    Now which definition of night, I forget, and excuse me while I get annoyed about civil twilight. Whatever that is.

  2. Fellow pedant – SVFR for PPL is available by day.

    I’ve used it to get down in deteriorating conditions at a towered airport where the coastal fog bank slowly rolled across one runway and the ATIS while the other runway was still patently clear. Tower had to intone that they were IFR as that’s what their ATIS said. I asked to use the other runway as I really wanted to get down. Tower asked if I wanted a pop up IFR. There simply wasn’t time for that before the good runway became bad. I asked for SVFR and was granted an immediate clearance.

    That’s the weird twist in the regs. Tower could offer an IFR but not a SVFR clearance. I had to come up with that.

  3. I lived in that area for a few years, flying mainly out of Camarillo airport doing part 91 biz flying.

    The hills and canyons are typical of coastal California, actually pretty rugged, hence the 5,000 foot MEA.

    If following the 101 freeway down low, it’s best described as going through a series of small passes. I used a special VFR exactly once in 2,000 hours of flying in Southern California, and had the bejesus scared out of me by looming high terrain North of CMA airport. It’s not a good place to be in the fog down low.

  4. Unfortunately, and tragically, the accident investigation in this crash will likely yield a rather mundane result – pilot disorientation and CFIT. Aeronautically there may not be much to learn. Even the motivation of choosing to launch into marginal conditions after weighing the risk versus pilot experience and the reward of getting around the LA traffic while arriving in style at the venue could be examined. If it had not ended in tragedy, it might have made a good “Never Again” story.

    The aviation lessons learned from this accident may not have to do with aviation at all. The insidious issue here is the temptation for someone famous to choose, or be persuaded into, taking a risk that would not be available to someone of lesser means. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a rich person who suffers an accident because they felt themselves to be invincible, but by all accounts Kobe was not only a role model, but an active force for good in this world. He may have just assumed, as always, that his pilot weighed all the facts and made the safest choice at the time.

    As a pilot, part of the go/no go decision process involves thinking about whether a risk might affect the people who’s lives you affect. That one extra little item in the risk evaluation process might be enough to tilt the decision over to going by alternate means or not going at all, even if that means being late or disappointing someone. Unfortunately the rewards of success go hand-in-hand with the responsibility for those who now depend on you for their own livelihood. Like it or not, that’s the reality.

    Granted, the responsibility for the safe conduct of the flight rests with the pilot in command, but pilots are human. And sometimes the aura of one’s power and celebrity obscure the visibility even more than fog or low clouds. Maybe from this, it’s possible to come up with the idea of personal minimums for passengers so that they could be more active participants in the decision to launch, especially if one has enough power or influence that those around him or her might not be thinking as clearly as one might hope.

    • Implicit in that is a message for people of means capable of buying expensive personal transportation, whether for hire or self flown. How do you know the person making the final decisions is competent and has good judgment? You never do and likely can’t because judgment is a moving target. A right call one day doesn’t assure one the next.

      I saw a story that said Bryant always asked for this pilot because he liked and trusted him. Fine as far it goes, but that’s only as far as the last good judgment or right decision.

    • Good points and I’d extrapolate one layer down. There are plenty of nice days where — looking out the window — things appear to be inviting but once you walk out the door and find blustery conditions, not so much. My own personal minima these days includes the following, “Do I want to risk my airplane today?” I think your points will be the takeaway for the rest of us here. Personal minima … that’s a good thing.

  5. Excellent synopsis, spot on. This is true of so much of what we read or hear in the media. Especially these days. The one question I might ask has anyone considered the possibility that he could have been so low just prior to the climb to 2100 feet and then the out of control descent that he had a rotor strike possibly a tree. I think that would result in an instinctive abrupt climb. It appears the terrain was coming up to meet them.
    This is a lesson how an experienced good pilot following the rules can make a bad mistake. It doesn’t matter how experienced or good you are or if you are legal, there are things you just don’t do.

  6. Great article Fred, on target with regards to media inaccuracies and hyperbole. In order to add a bit of punctilious detail with regards to “special VFR” and where it is applicable please note the following:

    §91.157   Special VFR weather minimums.
    (a) Except as provided in appendix D, section 3, of this part, special VFR operations may be con-
    ducted under the weather minimums and requirements of this section, instead of those contained
    in §91.155, below 10,000 feet MSL within the airspace contained by the upward extension of the
    lateral boundaries of the controlled airspace designated to the surface for an airport.
    The last sentence is particularly noteworthy with regard to the location of my the crash, which was outside of controlled airspace designated to the surface. While it’s a moot point with regards to the tragedy it is not in regards to your salient points regarding media reports.

  7. As Jay H. previously commented, the multitude of ridges & hills surrounding the lower and densely populated valley/basin areas make VFR below the clouds truly spooky in low ceiling/low viz conditions. The mist blends imperceptibly into the featureless rising terrain and many an aircraft has come to grief while trying to squeeze through to the next valley. For non-SoCal pilots, KABC-TV had an unusually straightforward recap of the flight, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lf9gpz3FRdA

  8. I learned to fly in the ’60s from KTOA in the LA basin. In those days we would frequently have one or two miles visibility but no clouds due to the smog. We would get a SVFR clearance and climb out in our 65 hp Champ with no electrical system or gyros and a wind driven generator for the radio with whistle stop tuning. The top of the smog layer was usually around 1,000′. We’d climb to 2,000′, practice over the Palos Verdes peninsula, then come back overhead the airport, get another SFVR, and spiral down over the airport into the pattern always keeping the airport in sight. In those days we thought nothing of it. I’m a little bit older now (well maybe more than a little bit) and would’t do it now.

    Mike R.

  9. To my way of thinking SVFR is useful when good weather is in sight, for example, taking off under an overcast with higher ceilings ahead, or ducking down to get into an airport that perhaps has no approaches or to use a more favorable runway. Once you start fudging visbility, it isn’t SVFR any more, it’s scud running.

  10. I have a couple of thousand hrs flying commercial VFR in the Pacific Northwest. The older I get the bigger the yellow stripe down my back gets. For me it is all about the visibility. I don’t really care how low I am as long as I can see a lot in front of me. As soon as I feel I am starting to see the flight vis ahead of me diminishing, that is when I start really paying attention.

    Bottom line in 44 yrs of flying have never once regretted turning around but I have regretted pressing on more than a few times……

  11. Of course this thesis should be properly evaluated through many professionally conducted congressional hearings with EXPERTS, but… if I am right, the helicopter crashed because the mountain tops reached higher than the helicopters cruising altitude. Since correlation is now causation in new-age- science and in politics, things should be painfully clear.

    Outlaw mountains reaching higher than the average flying altitudes of rich peoples helicopters.

    or;

    Outlaw rich peoples helicopters.

    Whenever extremely popular and well known people die in fiery aviation accidents our industry (helicopters are part of it, even large ones) gets attention from press people with little to no concept about aviation. Hearsay, innuendo and thumb-sucking, highly speculative wanna-be investigative journalism then usually begin.

    Flying superstars around is no different than flying normal people, both crashing planes stop suddenly and the forces of impact generally exceed homo sapiens ability to withstand them.

    Saying NO needs to be part of pilots vocabulary. Saying NO takes a second. Being dead takes a lifetime…