In Los Angeles, Kobe and Wealthy Elites Use Helicopters as Taxis

In a video, we retraced Kobe Bryant’s route before the crash that killed him and eight others to try to understand what might have happened.

Comments: 70

  1. This video paradoxically crashes about two-thirds the way through - just short of the point where the helicopter did, despite repeated page reloads.

  2. Crashes at 2:03 mark -- very well-produced video, so I wish I could watch it all!

  3. @Wayne Same here

  4. I watched the excellent video first and after finishing reading this beautifully crafted article, I scrolled back up to see who had written it and was surprised that four reporters were credited. Really well done.

  5. as an American living in this era, I don't trust the NTSB, I don't trust the FAA, I don't trust the DHS, I don't trust the FBI, I don't trust the DOJ, I don't trust the DOT or any other federal agency tasked with investigating this tragedy. my assumption is that it is an act of domestic terrorism that has been stoked by this president, the right-wing media and the republican party. the sham investigation will find some way to place the blame on the deceased pilot.

  6. The NTSB investigates accidents. Period. They have no blame in this. Point your finger at the FAA who allowed an aircraft to fly without a terrain warning system under “special conditions “, I.e. a famous person on board.

  7. @Don F. I agree. The cause will be pilot error. But just imagine. Up in the air with a billionaire and friends, and the pilot says, "its too risky to fly". There was pressure to get to the game.

  8. @george Maybe.

  9. The METRO buses and trains in L.A. are all displaying RIP Kobe signs this week. Ironic, given that Kobe and most other wealthy Angelenos would never dream of riding public transit here.

  10. @DPC Just out of curiosity, what exactly do you think would happen if a celebrity like Kobe Bryant rode public transit? Should all forms of public transportation not pay tribute to Kobe Bryant simply because he didn’t use public transportation?

  11. @Sasha Bens People used to see John Kennedy on the subway all the time.

  12. As it happens, John Kennedy died because he too chose to fly his own plane in bad weather in order to get to an event, instead of doing what most people do, drive.

  13. This obsession with Kobe Bryant ignores the fact that he was one of an elite group of entitled persons who ignored the environmental effects of their means of travel and thereby disproportionately contributed to global warming - in this case, to get her daughter to a basketball game. I am sad for his death, his daughter's death and for the deaths of all others on the helicopter. But I am sadder for the deaths and displacement of so many people that he will directly cause because of his selfish choices.

  14. @CFXK You are a bit misinformed. While helicopters emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases at a relatively high rate, collectively they contribute next to nothing when stacked against emissions from other modes of transport. In fact, emissions from cars are the single largest contributor (~40%) to anthropogenic warming within the transportation sector. The next biggest contributors are freight trucks and passengers airplanes---things the average person relies heavily on. So no... you cannot pin the impending climate disaster on people like Bryant who can afford the luxury of regular helicopter rides. Climate change is being driven by the choices we ALL make as a society. More to the point, the emissions from Bryant's "selfish choices" will not lead to the deaths of "many people". That is simply ridiculous.

  15. The point is: on a percapita basis per mile , one who uses a Hummer or a Sikorsky rather than a Tesla or a Prius hybrid uses much more fuel.

  16. "Where are all those helicopters flying over my hood?" They are going somewhere else. Your question only reveals how you like be a victim.

  17. It has been almost a week since the crash and in all the articles and reports I still have not read or heard the word "altimeter". I am pretty sure that all aircraft have one. I would think that altitude is the most important factor when flying. Is it that expensive to install a warning system when altitude is too low?

  18. @Nick You're right, Nick, altimeters are required in all aircraft. However, altitude is not "the most important factor in flying. Spatial orientation is. When flying in clear air this is not a problem. The earth below is providing orientation. But in a cloud there is NO orientation at all. You're flying through gray cotton. You must fly by instruments--including an altimeter--or you will fall out of the cloud. Altitude. The area Bryant's helicopter was flying through is a maze of low mountains. As one flies over it--as I have many times--the altimeter goes up and down. That by itself would be confusing. So you need much more than an altimeter. My comment gives more detail.

  19. Anxieties of Entitlement Some will think I'm callous for blaming this tragedy on being rich. But one cannot help reading papers' reports every few months, how a famous or wealthy family and friends perished in a tragic private plain or helicopter. Worse yet how any casual reader would think for a quick minute, for the grace of God, that could be me. But in reality, it cannot be you, me or anyone else you know because we are not in the super rich class, where minutes saved on commuting or avoiding crowds, cause us to define a new normal that can only be thought of as entitled. While I feel terrible for those lives lost, you also feel these people made a bad choices. Out of the (9), once up in the air, I bet someone mummered, "I'm scared and cannot see anything", Trading up for a celebrity lifestyle has its downsides. The odds are against you when you travel privately compared to public transportation. Though I have been asked to fly privately on occasion, I won't.

  20. @george the rest of the unwashed masses die or are mutilated in car wrecks. Flying is statistically safer than cars, hands down.

  21. Not in private planes and helicopters it isn't. Only in big commercial jets.

  22. @JerseyGirl This was not “private”, this was a professional charter operation. And yes, it is safer than driving. By a factor of ten.

  23. Interesting. On the same page articles about the need for high density housing and how the rich are trying to fly above the permanent traffic jams. Better get used to it. California is committed, no matter what happens, to endlessly add ever more people. This will counter act any steps taken to alleviate the housing crises, loss of open space, terrible air, increasing commute times, decreasing clean water, you name it crises. Humans in general and California’s in particular, seem unable to get past the idea that continuing to add more people to a fixed area can’t be fixed by more growth and development. No matter what you do, the growing number of people will eventually overwhelm whatever solution you try. Could it finally be time to look at the cause rather than the symptoms?

  24. @AL - Population of the entire US projected to grow 25% by 2060.

  25. I live in LA County- a few miles from the crash. There was no thick fog advisory that morning. In LA when there is thick fog--it cuts a wide swath and there was nothing. Now if it was a freak fog, what is the probability with Kobe in the air. This story about the weather causing his accident just doesn't add up

  26. @That's What She Said Don't these machines have GPS that tells them how far they are from the ground. My uncle's Cessna had one in the 60's.

  27. @That's What She Said After I walked outside Sunday morning, I came inside and said, "Chilly and foggy today." I saw it.

  28. @That's What She Said There are degrees of foggy-I have lived in California my whole life. It was not dense fog and there was no dense fog warning. This is Kobe Bryant. They need to investigate thoroughly.

  29. Surprised that an article about LA and Helicopters did not mention that Francis Gary Powers, who flew the U-2 spy plane for the CIA in Russia, worked as a helicopter pilot for a local LA news station. Mr. Powers died in a fatal crash in 1977

  30. If this country had done what it should have, every major metropolitan area would have state-of-the art subway systems, and we’d have bullet trains connecting them. But no, we invest in billionaires instead, and cry when their jets and helicopters crash. Just sayin’.

  31. @Tom Hayden Oh remind me of April in Amsterdam. Light rail and the occasional Lyft driver, who who drove a Tesla.

  32. When I fly over Los Angeles, I look down and see a million separate houses. Because of the lack of high rising buildings, it makes it ideal of helicopter traffic. All they need to do is avoid the inbound outbound traffic at the airports. LA sprawls forever, is a huge city and mostly lower stories. Also, the weather is tricky. Fog comes in and the helicopters have to stay below the acceptable heights for airplane traffic. What can go wrong will and Kobe overplayed his luck.

  33. I am a pilot of fixed wing aircraft, not helicopters. However, I have flown extensively in the L.A. Basin on instruments, working out of Burbank Airport, the airport which was controlling Bryant's aircraft. I can state, categorically, that the tragedy was caused by the pilot's disorientation inside a cloud. He had lost control of the helicopter. Why do I know this? The last seconds of the flight show it descending at a rate of over 2'000 feet per minute. That is extremely fast. By itself, that is the sure indication that the pilot had lost control. Why had he lost control? Because he could not see. He had flown into thick fog or a cloud. The terrain in that area is treacherous. It's a maze of low mountains AND these are a gray-green color that blends into fog/cloud on a murky day--which this was. Remember that the L.A. Basin usually experiences fine, balmy weather. Pilots are used to that. Flying "on instruments," (IFR) inside clouds, is rare. So, even if a pilot has a rating to fly IFR as Bryant's pilot Kobayan did, they are going to be rusty. Nothing could be more dangerous to flying IFR. It is a flying skill which requires constant practice. Where is an L.A. Basin pilot going to find it? Only on simulators which are rare and expensive. Flying a helicopter IFR is more difficult than flying a fixed wing plane. For all the above--and more--it is absolutely clear me that Kobayan's spatial disorientation was the cause of this tragedy.

  34. @Cameron Beck Lay people (I don't think I'm alone in this) think that copters are always able to hover. That means no ground speed - zero or ~ - in place; and changing altitude, if desired. Is it naive to ask, why would a pilot maintain a high ground speed when his range of vision has shrunk, or he has none? If this is a real alternative, why do copter pilots seem to ignore it? Fixed wing, needing ground speed, obviously different. Not sure even 'spatial disorientation' explains this. If you don't know where you are, why not stop moving?

  35. @MoreRadishesPlease You make a good point. He apparently was flying over 180 mph at the end. Not reckless, but above average cruise speed for a helicopter in those conditions. There's a possible psychological element here, too. Pilots--I include myself--will sometimes seek to please their passengers by pushing on into adverse conditions. And fly too fast. This, of course, is especially true when a pilot's passenger is a celebrity. It's an insidious thing. I came close to crashing trying to please passengers. So, yes, it's fair to say that Kobayan was flying too fast for conditions, conditions which he should not have attempted to fly through in the first place. You're probably thinking, mister, 'hindsight is always 20/20.' Well, Kobayan was lacking 'foresight' on that tragic day. Hovering a helicopter is generally not used in point A to B flying as this trip was. It's used in very specific situations: rescue, surveillance, handling cargo. The reason is simple: hovering burns tremendous amount of fuel.

  36. Sweet Icarus flew close one too many times. It’s just awful and I have only learned the NBA since Russ. Laker fans are special and we all hurt and thank God we got to experience that Man. I’m so sorry they have to travel that way

  37. I'm an IT guy who's learned a few facts about flying planes and choppers. This pilot was using an iPad when he was in thick cloud cover, which if he lost track of his instrumentation for looking down or sideways, it's a sure way to crash. Also, there are at least TWO golf courses in Malibu (20 min cab ride to Thousand Oaks). If you're flying somewhere and conditions turn adverse, then you need to have an emergency out. Even Harrison Ford has had to land on a golf course, so backing out is the responsible thing to do when eight lives depend on you. Pilot mindset is everything as shown in this example: https://youtu.be/W0lWsqAwYwY /P Why I watched that video TWICE unrelated to and before this crash and not our pilot, speaks to complacency and over-confidence. This accident was 1000% preventable.

  38. It is amazing that pilots still follow highways, just like the Wright brothers did 100 years ago. If my car has GPS, and cars will soon be able to drive themselves, I can’t understand why sophisticated aircraft hauling millionaires aren’t required to use the same technology. 

  39. Wait,if the helicopter was getting Smokey before even hitting the ground then what happened before that?

  40. I thought California was trying to reduce carbon emissions? How do so many helicopters fit in that picture?

  41. The pilot in command (PIC) has final authority for complying with FAA regulations and insuring the safe operations of his/her aircraft. A PIC flying VFR has a legal duty not to fly into Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). Upon doing so, inadvertently or otherwise, the pilot should immediately notify ATC. ATC can provide a PIC an array of options to help safely land the aircraft. When a VFR flight encounters IMC conditions and crashes, it is almost always a fatal event. Another question, why did ATC approve the Special VFR clearance? In my opinion, SVFR is designed for a pilot to climb above a cloud layer for extended flight. To me, there is failure in judgement by the PIC and ATC; however, over-riding responsibility remains with the PIC. Another consideration is when a pilot becomes spatially disoriented flying in IMC, he/she does not recognized the aircraft may be descending at a rapid rate. There is no horizon or ground reference to recognize the aircraft is plummeting. A pilot can believe he/she is climbing rather than descending and facing impeding death. It is possible that the PIC and passengers never anticipated the crash; it simply happened and at high rate of descent and airspeed.

  42. @BRB Thanks for your comment, it’s brilliant and I am now able to better understand what might have happened. You clearly have some experience with this field and I for one appreciate you having gone into such a good explanation for those of us who don’t know much about aviation matters.

  43. @BRB A Special VFR clearance is not designed to allow a pilot to climb above a cloud layer. Under a SVFR the pilot must remain clear of clouds with the surface in sight, maintain 1 statute mile of flight visibility, and is responsible for terrain and obstacle clearance. It is designed to allow aircraft to enter, depart or transition the controlled airspace around an airport that is below VFR weather minimums without an IFR clearance.

  44. Contrary to what these reporters claim, I really don't think that many people commute around LA in helicopters. As someone who has spent a large amount of time in the city over the last thirty years, I am always surprised at how few helicopters there are in the sky. The video in this article demonstrates this too. Aside from police, sheriffs and news choppers, the skies are largely empty compared to other major cities around the world. Considering the awful traffic and the incredible wealth in the city, it seems strange that the helo industry isn't way bigger. I can't even think of many convenient places to land one outside of downtown or the airports: Malibu? Hollywood? Beverly Hills? Laurel Canyon? The nearest landing spot would still leave you with miles of gridlocked roads to your final destination.

  45. I simply could not sleep at night when I first moved to the westside of LA, near the Beverly Hilton off Wilshire Blvd. in 2005. The helicopters drove me mad. In fact, ridiculously, I called the LAPD to complain. Everyone laughed, told me to get used to it. Eventually I did. But I was always aware that there was a movie filming, criminals tracked or a disaster of some kind unfolding. And I’m a New Yorker! Pretty immune to ambient noise, or so I thought.

  46. I thought the world was ending in 12 years due to global warming yet Kobe was flying helicopters to take his kid to basketball practice. Seems like some weird double standards.

  47. @Michael Green You don't have to look hard too find many such "weird double standards," aka hypocrisy." DiCaprio actually flew a biz jet to receive an environmental award! He now flies commercial like the rest of the masses. If we were serious about saving the planet we would have banned the most polluting vehicle per passenger on the planet: biz jets.

  48. It amazes me that even an article regarding Kobe Bryant’s death you’d have to demonize the Los Angeles Police Department by saying “ the sound of a helicopter is sometimes a sinister reminder of the Los Angeles Police Department’s history of abuses on those communities.” Similarly to other large police departments such as the NYPD the usage of a helicopter would be for felony suspects, missing person searches - all active , extremely important , costly flights. Please don’t weave into the fabric of your reporting or imply, as usual, that the LAPD just has a history of abuse in certain communities in Los Angeles. The men and women of the LAPD who have worked tirelessly over the years, giving their lives and work to help the downtrodden and disenfranchised/ not the celebrities per say or the rich of L.A. deserve more than what you express. LAPD’s aviation unit doing their best to help the citizens of LA in all weather, just like the weather conditions that took down that helicopter claiming nine precious lives.

  49. @James I absolute agree.

  50. @James Agreed. I felt that editorial narrative was uncalled for. It may *feel* that way that to some. Most of the time, it is providing valuable air support to protect people -- officers and citizens -- on the ground by providing critical, real time information. Thank you for your comment.

  51. @James It's a bit oversensitive to complain about this fair point. The LAPD and to a great extent the LA sheriff's department can be heard hovering copters low over my neighborhood in Hollywood, for example, on a near continuous basis. (The noise pollution alone is dreadful.) The copters are often used for matters like executing warrants or seizing probation violators, not for crimes in progress. You might argue that this is all necessary -- I do not think it is, and have lived in Boston and NYC, where it is not the case at all -- but you aren't living and working under this incessant din. Further, I have tried many times to call the local precinct to ask whose copters are above and why. No one ever knows. There is no place to get even baseline info, like which department is flying. Why is this info kept from the public? If law enforcement wants the public to embrace its incessant use of copters, the first best step would be transparency online and at public meetings. Citizens have the right to weigh in on these practices. We do not want to live in a police state.

  52. It's surprising that an article on how the rich are able to avoid the nightmare traffic in LA by using helicopters doesn't tell us the cost of flights such as that routinely taken by Kobe Bryant. I would have thought that this would be an essential question for the reporters of this piece.

  53. @Elizabeth ~ I don't know the $ cost but the helicopter Kobe Bryant flew in was optimally designed for two pilots. In another NYT article today a pilot emphasized that two pilots made it safer but more expensive to fly.

  54. A mass of moving parts held together by castellated nuts and cotter pins..Familiarity breeds contempt they say. Treating machines that try and do defy gravity at two thousand feet in the air as you would a golf cart,well as they say "Stuff Happens"

  55. and what LA resident doesn't thrill to the deafening sound of jet helicopters shaking their house and scrambling their brains?

  56. For all the experts reading this, why did the copter fly so far East to Glendale when there were many more direct routes to get from Orange County to Camarillo? Why didn’t the pilot follow the 405 to the 101? Just to avoid weather/visibility issues? I live in LA and Glendale is way out of the way for their destination and haven’t seen articles anyone addressing this. I know I sound like an episode of the Californians.

  57. @Melissa Leigh Excellent Question--and funny how not addressed

  58. One thing you will never hear in central Paris France are copters. The siren is a different matter, but I like that sound. If you come from a city that has lots of copters, you will notice that the skys are quiet. And it is wonderful not hearing them 24 hours a day. It is one of the small things that makes Paris a fantastic city to visit. And as CDG and Le Bourget are located far away from the city center, you do not hear those planes either. The ONLY city in America you will not hear copters very much is Washington DC with its No Fly zone. And the copters you do hear are on government business. Thats about the only thing DC has going for it right now.

  59. I got a VFR license 35 years ago. The first thing my instructor told me when I passed the test was that I should limit my flying to ideal weather conditions and never fly VFR in order to get from point A to point B, because I would end up taking risks in less than ideal weather conditions due to scheduling or passenger pressure. If I wanted to fly routinely from point A to point B, I should learn IFR. He then gave me a pile of VFR accident reports of the past 5 years to read. Each and every one, without exception, was weather-related, and the overwhelming majority was caused by pilot disorientation in clouds or fog. I continued to fly recreationally for about 8 years and then stopped because I couldn’t find sufficient time to fly, even though I always managed to get in the mandatory flight hours. I realized that - just as with all humans - my own tendency to overestimate myself and underestimate the risks would be the biggest threat to my safety and that of any passengers on my flight.

  60. Just a note, he lived in Orange County and had his basketball academy in Calabasas. That is a horrible drive, even on a Sunday...

  61. It looks like the fog was so thick along the Highway route that the pilot decided he had to climb above the fog. At 2300 feet he probably lost all visual reference and didn't know up from down and went into that terrible state of confusion that leads your body to do the wrong thing even if you're an experienced pilot. He sent the copter down without realizing it. It's pretty obvious that the cause was a pea soup fog and the terrible, tragic decision to risk navigating through it instead of delaying the trip.

  62. @John There is an instrument panel. People need training to trust it and be reminded frequently.

  63. Excellent video and explanation. My question will always be how a helicopter not equipped with a terrain warning system (TCAS) was allowed special privileges to fly at altitudes that would have obviously necessitated this important feature. The influence placed on the pilot by the status of those on board had to have been a factor . Once again let’s see why the incompetent FAA allowed this unique clearance.

  64. We may never know what happened, but I can well imagine that between fast-changing circumstances, the pilot’s desire to satisfy his high profile client (it has been reported that having star clients mattered to him) and self-confidence, and probably Kobe’s own determination to get to the game given his well-known willpower (would they have gotten there in time if they were forced to take a car ?) combined to lead to this tragedy. We often live and die in the same fashion, especially when we don’t know when to stop - the helicopter gave him freedom to live and love the way he wanted, but also took what he valued most away.

  65. @lm my daughter is a helicopter pilot and is very upset about the helicopter crash that killed 9 people and left the country mourning and the crash on the rooftop in NYC a few months ago. She has been flying for a number of years and has instrument reading certified, but before each flight,she does her homework, regardless of how short a flight is going to be. She refuses to fly unless she is going to have good weather, not only in her immediate vicinity, but her following legs. Number one, she feels, we should wait till experts find out what happened, but they may never know. Number 2, that helicopter was a twin engine craft and very seldom both engines fail, number 3, that was a 2 pilot craft, and that should have been a must. Number 4, and the most important thing, the pilot should have refused to fly, like all the others that were grounded, and given 2 choices to his passengers, wait until weather changes, or drive. What a tragedy.

  66. Having driven in LA many times, I agree - it can be a nightmare. But in LA there are so many options & freeways. I have never experienced the type of traffic nightmare like you will find in that rapidly growing warren that is Seattle. New residents are pouring in like water, yet there are only 2 major freeways - from North to South. With only small East and West connections. And there is NO room for expansion. Zip ! Every possible side route or "secret shortcut" has been discovered and totally packed. Even certain residential streets are a nightmare. That's why after every visit to LA, someone will invariably ask about the terrible traffic down there "oh, I'd never go there" they say. My answer every time - "I would rather drive in LA ANY time than Seattle". No one ever believes me, but it is true.

  67. Tim, Dave, Julie and Louis, Thank you for a *fabulous* color piece about helicopters in LA! For those of us who don't live in LA, your flowing and bitter-sweet article opens a window onto a sky very unlike our own. Your work presents an extraordinary range of perspectives, from music to history to smells to economics, and as a result, the sky in LA has never seemed more real to me! Thank you.

  68. If anything comes from this tragedy, I hope it is regulation. Mandated black boxes, voice recorders, TAWS on all craft. But also common sense-- if it is too dense a fog for the LAPD to fly in, it should be too dense a fog for commercial/private craft to fly in as well. This helicopter crashed in a remote area, what if instead it hit a home or populated area? There is a risk not only to those who put their hands in the experience of pilot and machine, but those below as well. Time for LA to get serious about its crowded airspace. The pilot never should have left Burbank airspace.

  69. As a resident of the Los Feliz neighborhood in Los Angeles I can attest to the unending sonic nightmare that is the helicopters circling above in our sky. I am several blocks away from Children's Hospital Los Angeles so helicopter ambulances are a normal part of life here and are well-tolerated as we understand a child's life is possibly at stake. But the unbelievable amount of private, traffic and—worst of all!—the police helicopters is insufferable day and night. The police helicopters circle and circle and circle in a small radius for 10, 20, 30, 40 minutes at a time nonstop, often multiple times a day! And our neighborhood is very safe and friendly. The flying mechanical rodents above make me want to cut my ears out of my head! Something needs to be done. As a creative who writes among other activities at home (like many of us in Los Feliz) it is stifling on nearly a daily basis.

  70. Having a good knowledge of Southern California I am wondering why they didn’t fly from John Wayne Airport out over the ocean to Camarillo. I can understand that going past LAX could be a factor, but is that why?