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Readers Respond to My ‘Kobe Bryant Crash’ Column

Posted 4 years 34 days ago ago by Randy Mains

Two of my readers offered their unique views regarding the last column I wrote for the April/May 2020 issue of Rotorcraft Pro entitled Honoring that Sacred Trust.  In the article I talked about the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash addressing some of the facts taken from the preliminary NTSB report, one of those facts being the accident pilot had over 8,000 flight hours and held an instrument instructor certificate.

Mr. Cliff Muzzio wrote to voice two concerns.  His first concern: the use of the word ‘experienced’ I used in the article when I talked about the accident pilot. His second observation was that he feels IIMC training is woefully inadequate and can possibly give a pilot a false sense of security that they can handle an IIMC event.    

On the first point Muzzio writes, “My only objection is your characterization of the mishap pilot as ‘experienced’ without referencing his actual IMC or full motion simulator time.  Because we don’t know that fact, I don't believe that the word ‘experienced’ is appropriate.”

My reply:  

“Cliff, I agree with you. The word 'experienced' sadly is based on hours, isn't it? It's how experience is defined in our industry. I have seen many high-time pilots perform poorly in Level D sim while relatively low-hour pilots do extremely well. It’s a question of proficiency and attitude.  I think we all know that hours flown doesn’t necessarily give us the whole picture.” 

Mr. Muzzio’s second point is that he thinks a short session on IIMC procedures under a vision-limiting device at the end of a 135 checkride might give a pilot a false sense of security.  He wrote: 

“When I was a training captain and check airman for a VFR 135 operator my POI (principal operations inspector) asked me to develop an IIMC escape plan for our company. I did and it worked well, but only because our operation was very geographically limited. He was ecstatic, but I think a once-a-year Foggles exercise is bureaucratic eyewash if it deludes an IMC incompetent pilot into pushing the weather. That is why, in my view, the (short) exercise, does more harm than good.”

My reply:

“I certainly agree that the once-a-year Foggles exercise doesn't really tell you much about the competency of a pilot to actually fly in IMC conditions, especially if that pilot has an actual IIMC encounter, an event that can actually lead to panic.  (I speak from personal and observational experience here.)  

“Flying on instruments is the most perishable skill we have, something I’ve mentioned in past articles. I’ve seen pilots pass my ATP check ride then as little as a few weeks later, if they have not maintained their proficiency, they’re struggling. I’m a huge fan of flight simulator training and checking but, as you mentioned, not every company can afford the cost.  So I am afraid our only answer is to maintain the status quo, as unsatisfactory as it is.”

I received another email from Mr. Cathal Oaks who offers a unique perspective of the Kobe Bryant crash. He wrote:

“Thanks for all the great work you do in highlighting the importance of CRM. I am currently a TRE (type rating examiner) flying search and rescue in Europe and often reference your articles when instructing and de-briefing... (your article entitled) ‘See it, Say it, Fix it!’ is a particular favorite of mine! 

“When I read your article ‘Honoring the Sacred Trust,’ I wondered why we don’t talk about the role the corporate client plays in CRM. When I heard about the crash involving Kobe Bryant I was very saddened, but I also felt a real sense of empathy for the pilot who I have no doubt was doing his very best. There was little mention if Kobe understood safety and I wondered if he may have put pressure on the pilot. 

“A high-profile crash occurred in the U.K. in 2014 where a multi-billionaire, Lord Haughey, and his two pilots, and a passenger were killed in an AW139 crash taking off in near zero-zero conditions.  Afterward, a long list of pilots who had worked for Lord Haughey said they were not surprised. 

“I don't know what Kobe was like as a client but it is worth considering. In a small aircraft the client/passenger is part of the CRM infrastructure and likely to be subtly or overtly influencing the pilot and affecting their own safety. Who knows, maybe if you wrote an article on this at some stage it might be read by one of these clients and some of it may stick in the back of their heads?”  

Carrying his thought further, Mr. Oaks goes on to say, “The piece in the puzzle that I am often most interested in is what I call ‘the compromiser’ and how circumstances can put a pilot on their back foot and compromise their ability to make a safe decision, one that they would easily have made had there been no pressure to perform.”

Here’s my reply:  

“Thank you for taking the time to air your views. Your comment about our passengers needing to understand the pressure they can put on their pilot reminded me of an article I wrote in the May/June 2018 edition of Rotorcraft Pro entitled ‘You are Safety’s Gatekeeper,’ where I talk about the pressure put on the FlyNYON pilots by management concluding that, ultimately, we must make the right decision no matter the pressure we feel internally or externally.  

“I am familiar with the 139 crash you mentioned and the pressure put on the two pilots. I often use it as a case study in my CRM courses. Unfortunately (or fortunately) in my view, the final outcome of any flight and our interaction with our passengers to ensure we get them to their destination safely, in the end, ultimately lies with us— the pilot in command. 

“One possible remedy might be that in the before-flight briefing with your passengers,  it could be emphasized that you promise to do everything in your power to ensure you get them to their destination safely but only if two things are met:  One, you will adhere to the legal regulations you are governed by and two, you are not made to feel pressure to exceed your personal limitations.  

“My analogy has always been, would you pressure your doctor to perform a procedure on you that they are not comfortable with if the outcome could be fatal if they screw up?  The same logic goes to a passenger pressuring you (the doctor) to perform.  It’s dangerous behavior. A pilot's integrity (professionalism) must be rock-solid, unwavering, and uncompromising. I would tell the medical team I was flying that I’m paid to say NO if I feel I cannot make the flight safely, something they should be thankful for.”

A helicopter pilot, unlike an airline pilot, doesn’t (normally) have the luxury to be separated from their passengers. Most of us have intimate and personal interaction with those we carry, hence we can often acutely feel real or imagined pressure to deliver them to their destination...no matter what!  It’s the “no matter what” that’s the deadly trap.  Recognizing that trap and following Mr. Oak’s recommendation of not compromising your high safety standard, and breaking that link in the error chain forming, will ensure everyone lives to fly another day.

Thank you Cliff and thank you Cathal for your thoughtful comments.

Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected].