What We Know About the Kobe Bryant Accident

The helicopter flown for Kobe Bryant was originally known as 761LL when it was property of the State of Illinois.
The helicopter flown for Kobe Bryant was originally known as 761LL when it was property of the State of Illinois. (State of Illinois/)

Investigators at the site of the January 26 crash of a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter—which claimed the lives of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his young daughter and seven others—said the aircraft missed clearing the hill it struck near Calabasas, California, by some 30 feet. National Transportation Safety Board investigator Bill English made a point during a press conference the next day to explain that, while clearing that ridge might have provided a few precious seconds to the pilot as he apparently struggled to regain control of the machine, there were other nearby hills that certainly would have posed additional threats. The accident flight, conducted under Part 135 rules, was tracked on radar while it was operating under special VFR conditions near Burbank and then through the Van Nuys area before it eventually disappeared in the hills along Highway 101 near Calabasas on that Sunday morning.

Early media reports following the accident used terminology like, “FAA Cleared Bryant Helicopter to Fly,” a clear reference to the special VFR clearance issued by ATC at both Burbank and Van Nuys. While those headlines seemed to imply ATC was somehow responsible in the accident, a special VFR clearance required the helicopter’s pilot, Ara Zobayan, to remain clear of clouds at all times. At the time of the accident, the area around and west of Van Nuys was shrouded in dense fog. Though Zobayan was instrument rated, there is no evidence the 1991 vintage S-76B was equipped and current for instrument flight. The pilot held a second class medical and had logged 8,200 hours as of July 2019, with approximately 1,250 hours of time on the S-76. He’d been employed by Island Express Helicopters, the company operating the helicopter for Bryant, for 10 years. Investigators will also be looking into the scheduling of the helicopter on that Sunday morning to determine if anything might have influenced the pilot to press on into poor weather. An unverified audio/radar track created by VASA Aviation purports to show the last few minutes of the flight.

The NTSB’s on-site board member Jennifer Homendy revealed a number of known facts about the flight and the helicopter. She said ADS-B data showed, “the copter was at 2,300 feet when it lost communications with ATC and that the impact occurred at a descent rate of more than 2,000 feet per minute [with the helicopter] in a descending left bank.” She said Bryant’s helicopter was not equipped with a terrain avoidance and warning system. It is impossible to be certain an on-board TAWS would have prevented the accident at the speed—approximately 140 knots—at which the machine was traveling. Homendy said an iPad loaded with ForeFlight was also uncovered at the crash site, though the device’s owner has not yet been identified.

Homendy added a number of insights to the briefing, explaining that in 2004 the NTSB sent the FAA a recommendation to require all existing and new U.S.-registered turbine rotorcraft with six or more passenger seats be required to have a TAWS on board. The FAA never implemented the recommendation, and the Board eventually dropped its pressure on the agency, marking the agency response as “unacceptable.” In 2005 the NTSB assisted in a Baltic Sea crash of another S-76 and recommended to the FAA at that time that all civil helicopters under Part 91 and Part 135 be equipped with a cockpit voice and flight data recorders. The FAA also failed to act on that recommendation.

The S-76 is a large aircraft, capable of seating as many as 13 and weighing in just under 12,000 pounds at max gross weight. Sources believe Bryant’s helicopter was configured for approximately eight passengers. Bryant’s helicopter, N72EX, was purchased in 2015 from the State of Illinois when that state’s then-governor decided aircraft were an unnecessary extravagance.

Flying’s popular Aftermath columnist Peter Garrison happened to be 20 miles away from the accident site on that Sunday morning and said there were dense clouds in the area with no sun peeking through at his location. After reviewing some of the public tracking data available including the rather abrupt pull up the Sikorsky’s pilot executed during the last minute of the flight, Garrison said, “I think it’s possible that in the process of trying climb above the clouds, he became disoriented and perhaps was reacting to some powerful physical sensations before the helicopter slid into the ground.” The helicopter, in one piece when it struck the ground, disintegrated along the ground projecting the contents of the cabin out ahead of the aircraft.” Garrison said the NTSB will “certainly be looking into what part of the helicopter stuck the ground first.”

Picture of the Day: Back to its nest

David Montgomery submitted the following photo and note: “After a late afternoon return from Bessie’s diner at Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport (KJVL), the Cardinal returns to Aurora Municipal Airport(KARR) in Illinois, to its nest. Photo by Mike Baer, my hangar neighbor.” Would you like to have your photo featured as Picture of the Day? You […]

Unusual Attitudes: The Circle Is Unbroken

Jane Pape as a young girl when I taught her to fly in the 1970s.
Jane Pape as a young girl when I taught her to fly in the 1970s. (Martha Lunken/)

Some ’specially fun flying recently: a ride in EAA’s B-17, a DC-3 I brought back home to Hamilton, Ohio, from where it had flown for many years as a freighter, and then a Cessna 195 I took from Hillsboro, Ohio, to Port Clinton on Lake Erie. I rode back to Lunken Airport from Hamilton in a Cessna Caravan (useful but no soul), and a friend got me from Port Clinton to Lebanon, Ohio, in his RV-8 (better). There, I picked up my Cessna 180 after work from wizard mechanic Mark Day and flew home to Lunken, musing about how, in a lifetime of flying, so many things seem to come full circle.

Flying that DC-3 into Hogan Field at Hamilton took me back to Hogan Air and Miami Valley days—135 freight operators I worked with frequently in my FAA years. But “worked” is a loose use of the term because I loved those airplanes and the guys who flew them. I remember them all, and landing at HAO, I think my eyes were a little teary…or maybe I’m being too sensitive (which I don’t mind).

And it had been 50-some years since I’d flown the Cessna 195 Businessliner—iconic, art deco and famous for its “Shaky Jake” engine. Back in the late ’60s, after a P&G pilot friend taught me “tailwheel flyin’” in a Cessna 120, we rented a 195 from a Damon Runyon-esque character named Tony Maier. Tony rented T hangars and a few airplanes and pumped fuel at Lunken Airport, but I don’t think anybody ever knew—or cared—if he actually had a pilot certificate. This 195 was rather “primitive,” and more than once, Will Adams and I drifted off into the grass after losing a brake on landing. The tower guys were quite tolerant, and Will would get out, shoving, pushing, cursing and guiding the tail while I taxied back to Tony’s hangar where we’d raise hell about the —ing brakes.

And how well I remember riding (albeit unwillingly) in the back end while Tony and a pilot named Jim Bettes took the 195 to T.W. Smith’s Engine shop at nearby South Blue Ash Airport. On final to the short sod strip, there was much gesturing and shouting up front; these were pre-headset days. Tony, in the right seat, would grab the controls, and the happy-go-lucky Bettes would yell, “You got it, Tony.” But then Tony would let go, yelling, “No, no, you got it, Jimmy.” After several of these exchanges, we impacted the ground—with both or maybe neither flying the airplane—and Tony shouted, “Go around, go around.” Laughing, Jimmy yelled back, “Hang on, we are going around.” Riding through a ground loop from the back end of a Cessna 195 is like riding “The Whip” at Coney Island.

Now, a doctor friend has decided to part with the beloved 195 he’s owned since medical school days, which has to be more anguishing than selling your car or your guns. I introduced Doc to Ed Rusch, a guy who can fix and fly nearly anything, including the Ford Tri-Motors at Island Airways. Ed did the 195 annual at Hillsboro and shared some tips on handling a 195 with “crazy legs” (crosswind landing gear). Then I flew it to Northern Ohio for more beautifying by this “Jake Genius.” That flight was also nostalgia-filled, thinking about and missing old friends such as Will Adams and Jimmy Bettes and Tony Maier.

Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes

Anyway, that afternoon, after landing my 72B back at Lunken, I stopped at Waypoint Aviation for fuel—and a free cup of Graeters ice cream. Teresa Harvey on the desk told me there was a memorial event going on upstairs in the hangar. Owner Mark Davis often loans this outstanding facility for fundraisers, parties, weddings and, yes, funerals. This was a small family-and-friends event for a lady who had learned to fly at Lunken Airport years ago, and although she no longer flew, she always said she would like her memorial held there.

“What’s her name?” I asked, figuring I knew pretty much anybody in that category. She wasn’t sure but suggested I go upstairs.

There were maybe 50 people gathered around a buffet table, telling “Janie” stories and looking at photographs displayed on the walls and laid out on tables. And there was a photo of Janie Pape, 50 years ago, standing in front of my red Cessna 150 trainer at Miss Martha’s Flying School just a short distance from the Waypoint hangar. A lady came over, gracious but obviously wondering who in the hell this stranger was “crashing” the memorial.

“Well, my airplane is being fueled outside, and I heard about this memorial…and the name was familiar. When I saw the picture I realized that, a very long time ago, I taught Janie to fly.”

Her sisters and friends were thrilled somebody from the airport remembered Janie and told me about her very rich life after the “airplane period”—a nurse, forensics expert, artist, photographer and dear friend to so many people.

It was a hot day, and I was tired after aviating all over the state of Ohio, but I couldn’t refuse their insistence I meet Janie’s friends and family, enjoy the buffet, and stay for a short memorial service.

The eulogies were short and sweet, and a number of friends shared their memories of this remarkable woman. Then the lady said the brocade bags at the end of the table contained Janie’s ashes, and anyone who wanted could take one to scatter in a favorite place, such as the nearby trail where some were going to walk.

“Actually,” she said, “Jane’s wish was [for] her ashes [to] be scattered from 2,500 feet over Lunken Airport, but that obviously isn’t possible.”

“Well, yes, actually, it’s quite possible,” I said, explaining that my airplane was sitting on the ramp just below the windows in the room.

I’ve had some good—and some not-so-good—experiences with the dispersement of ashes, so I knew how. We carefully and reverently emptied several bags of ashes into an appropriately flimsy popcorn bag from downstairs, tied it securely on a long string, and I took off with the tower’s permission to climb to 2,500 feet over Lunken Airport. There, with a friend of Janie’s in the right seat, I put the 180 in slow flight with full flaps, opened the window, held the end of the string and threw the bag into the slipstream.

And, again, I marveled at how the circle was unbroken.

This story originally published in the December 2019 issue of Flying Magazine

Technicalities: Piggybacks and Parasites

The relatively dainty and fleet-of-foot Mercury sits atop its mothership, Maia.
The relatively dainty and fleet-of-foot Mercury sits atop its mothership, Maia. (Courtesy of Peter Garrison/)

The first airplane to cross the Atlantic was a war-surplus Vickers Vimy bomber with a wingspan of 68 feet. The Spirit of St. Louis had a 46-foot wing. In 1975, I made the 2,000-mile trip from Gander, Newfoundland, to Shannon, Ireland—by then, a commonplace for single-engine planes with optimistic pilots—in a homebuilt of 23-foot span. In 1998, a pilotless airplane of 10-foot span did it, only to be surpassed in smallness a few years later by the Spirit of Butts Farm, a model plane of 6-foot span that reached Ireland with 1.5 ounces of fuel remaining.

It is an unexpected fact of aeronautics that the range of an airplane is unaffected by its size. For all practical purposes, only three factors govern range. They are, first, aerodynamic efficiency, represented by the lift-drag ratio and mainly governed by streamlining and wingspan; second, propulsive efficiency, which is the product of the amount of fuel the engines require to produce their power and their effectiveness in converting that power into thrust; and finally, the fuel fraction, or how much of the takeoff weight consists of fuel. An airplane of ordinary efficiency requires a fuel fraction of around one-third to cross the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch: An airplane with a sufficiently heavy fuel load might be able to fly a great distance once airborne, but it might be unable to get off the ground or out of ground effect.

These facts were not unknown in the 1930s, when airlines began to eye the commercial possibilities of hauling passengers and cargo over longer and longer distances and across oceans. Fast mail service was particularly attractive; already in 1932, a couple of German passenger ships had been equipped with compressed-air catapults from which single-engine Junkers floatplanes were launched while the ships were still hundreds of miles from their destination. The mail beat the ship to land by 24 hours, an advantage evidently considered worth the trouble. The spectacular launchings—which jerked the roaring airplanes to 70 mph in a space of 60 feet—must have been, at any rate, a treat for weary passengers.

Lufthansa took the principle a step further, launching twin-engine Dorniers to Brazil from a catapult-equipped ship parked on the coast of Africa. Twins were considered unequal to the weather of the North Atlantic, however, and the German shipbuilding firm of Blohm & Voss, which had an active airplane-manufacturing component, produced a four-engine floatplane, designated Ha 139, with a takeoff weight of 39,000 pounds—of which, you guessed it, about a third was fuel. It too was catapult-launched from a ship.

Meanwhile, in England, the boffins of Short Brothers—a firm specializing in flying boats—were meditating the same problem when Robert H. Mayo, technical manager at Imperial Airways, suggested a novel solution. Why not launch a transatlantic airplane not from a shipborne catapult but from a larger airplane already in flight?

Thus were born Mercury and Maia, also known as “the Short-Mayo composite.” It consisted of a 15,000 pound, 74-foot-wingspan airplane (Mercury) with four 365 hp, 16-cylinder, dual-crankshaft engines, planted atop an Empire flying boat (Maia) of about three times the size and horsepower. The unusual arrangement attracted a lot of welcome press attention, and it did succeed but not to the point that more than one was built.

Air launch offered several advantages. Principally, the heavily laden airplane did not have to get airborne under its own power. Others were less obvious. Because, in theory, Mercury would not alight until its fuel was largely exhausted, its pontoons did not have to support its laden weight and so could be relatively small. (The same was true of the Ha 139.) Lightweight fixed-pitch propellers could be used because the low-speed, high-power task of getting off the water and to cruising altitude was eliminated—though, just to be safe, Mercury and Maia did take off with all eight engines running. The long-range airplane could be made smaller than normally expected for its outsize fuel load.

But there were also disadvantages, one of which was that it is harder and costlier to build two airplanes than one. The scheme also suffered from an inability to get back. Lacking a second mothership on the American side, Mercury was humiliatingly obliged to island-hop from New York back to England by way of the Azores. On the other hand, with every empty cubic inch carrying fuel, Mercury did set a distance record for floatplanes—6,045 miles—that has never been surpassed.

Read More from Peter Garrison: Technicalities

The idea of one aircraft carrying another was not new with Robert Mayo. It had already been tried in 1916, using both a dirigible and an airplane as carriers. Sopwith Camels slung beneath gigantic airships resembled flies on watermelons. (It’s unclear to me how those airplanes, which had to be hand-propped, got their engines started in flight.)

Fast-forward to the 1950s, and we find a rash of experiments involving so-called “parasite fighters” carried by long-range bombers. One scheme—fathered by the inventive ex-Blohm & Voss designer Richard Vogt, creator of the Ha 139—involved hooking fighters to a B-29’s wingtips to increase its span. The fighters had to navigate the white water of the B-29’s tip vortices to get clamped on and, when attached, were hand-flown, using their elevators rather than ailerons for roll control. Apart from conceiving this idea, Vogt showed no symptoms of insanity.

Many of NACA’s jet- and rocket-propelled X-planes, which investigated supersonic flight between 1947 and 1968, were carried aloft by motherships, from B-29s to B-52s. Rocket propulsion in particular benefited from air launch because a rocket’s fuel load includes its oxidizer, while a jet harvests oxidizer from the atmosphere. Fuel weight, and the amount of fuel required just to lift the fuel itself, are even more critical factors in orbital rocketry than fuel fraction is in long-distance flight.

It was with this fact in mind that Burt Rutan, eyeing the $10 million X Prize for spaceflight by a privately developed vehicle, decided to use a big, gangly mothership to carry a tiny rocket plane aloft. The system worked; SpaceShipOne, a plastic homebuilt, surpassed the height reached by its precursor spaceplane, NASA’s hypersonic X-15. (Incidentally, in the Department of Belated Errata, I once reported that Rutan named that mothership White Knight after X-15 pilots Robert White and Pete Knight. He later said the connection had never occurred to him.)

The $25 million development bill for SpaceShipOne was paid by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Evidently gratified by the result, Allen then funded a new project called Stratolaunch, which Rutan had sketched out before his retirement. The idea was that orbital rockets, no less than suborbital spaceplanes, could be smaller and more efficient if launched from an airplane at 35,000 feet than if they had to reach that altitude and speed under their own power. Besides, launches would be freed from the constraints of weather, geography and elaborate ground facilities.

Stratolaunch took shape in a gigantic purpose-built hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port. Intended to lift a 550,000-pound payload, it is powered by six Boeing 747 engines and, with a wingspan of 385 feet, is—at least in that respect—the largest airplane ever built. It made its first, and only, flight in April. Allen, sadly, did not see it; he had joined the innumerable caravan the previous October.

During the seven years of its design and construction, Stratolaunch was associated with various space-launch enterprises, including SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, and various potential space vehicles, but in the end, no solid linkages were formed. In June, the company ceased operations and put the portentous machine up for sale at an asking price of $400 million.

It is said that space entrepreneur Richard Branson somewhat unkindly offered one dollar for it.

This story originally published in the December 2019 issue of Flying Magazine

Keeping America’s Largest Vintage Biplane Rides Fleet Flying

Two New Standard D-25s from Waldo Wright’s Flying Service in formation.
Two New Standard D-25s from Waldo Wright’s Flying Service in formation. (Courtesy Waldo Wright’s Flying Service/)

For the pilots, crews and families that operate vintage biplanes for giving public rides, there are few—if any—days off when it comes to performing important annual maintenance and 100-hour inspections. Meeting the FAA safety criteria for holding out rides to the public when your airplane was built over 80 years ago requires a dedication to the craft few in the aviation community possess.

Every day of the year, Rob Lock, a.k.a. “Waldo Wright” is busy keeping his operation’s four vintage biplanes airworthy. As the largest vintage biplane ride company in the country, his four airplanes are worked hard all year, giving rides in Michigan and Florida and at numerous events throughout the country. Keeping these beautiful old airplanes flying to FAA standards is a seven-days-a-week job, one that he and wife Jill lovingly perform.

“I knew that offering rides in vintage aircraft would be popular in 1995,” Lock said. “So, we went ‘all-in’ and started restoring our New Standards about 25 years ago. We’ve seen people come in the industry, stay for a while, and leave, but we just keep going, and have now built the largest vintage rides company in America. We operate two four-passenger New Standard D-25s, a two-passenger 1929 Travel Air E-4000, and a 1942 Boeing Stearman PT-17/N2S-3 set up with dual controls for one passenger—that’s 11 total seats. Not one vintage biplane tour company can come close to that. Other ride operators rarely have more than four seats available, and very few of them operate year-round.”

The Boeing Stearman from Waldo Wright’s Flying Service.
The Boeing Stearman from Waldo Wright’s Flying Service. (Courtesy Waldo Wright’s Flying Service/)

Currently, Waldo Wright’s Flying Service offers New Standard and Stearman flights in Michigan in the summer months, and Travel Air and Stearman flights in Florida during the winter. Lock does the majority of the flying, and while he can “call in” several Stearman pilots in each location when demand dictates, he’s the only one who flies the New Standards and Travel Air. “Our Stearman is flown by me up to Michigan and back down to Florida annually. I am in charge of flight operations and am the Director of Maintenance, while my wife Jill handles everything else...marketing, reservations, and paperwork. Once Kermit Weeks re-opens his Fantasy of Flight attraction in the future, we will have all our aircraft in Polk City operating year round,” Lock said.

Lock is a second-generation vintage airplane restorer, having learned the meticulous art of bringing these old biplanes back to life and keeping them flying from his father, the late Bob Lock. I toured Bob’s shop in Reedley, CA in 1986, and watch as skilled hands crafted wing ribs from scratch on one of his many restorations. Rob is continuing the family tradition with equally skilled hands, and he’s not afraid to get them dirty.

“To make this whole barnstorming idea work, it was imperative that I learned how to work on these old biplanes myself,” he explains. “If I was out flying away from my home airport and had a problem, chances were the airport mechanic wouldn’t know how to fix my problem. So, under the watchful eye of my father, I learned the systems and how to troubleshoot and fix my vintage airplanes. I’ve been a licensed A&P mechanic since 2006 and added my Inspection Authorization in 2017.”

Waldo Wright’s 1929 Travel Air E-4000 taking off.
Waldo Wright’s 1929 Travel Air E-4000 taking off. (Jack McCloy/)

For anyone who knew Bob Lock, it comes as no surprise that the expertise to keep vintage airplanes flying has been passed down to his son, Rob. “My father began honing his restoration skills by restoring a Fairchild PT-19 in his early 20s, and, throughout his life, he had a hand in the restoration of close to 40 to 50 aircraft. His big thing was passing along a lifetime of knowledge gained in dealing with vintage aircraft restoration and maintenance to the next generation. Throughout the last years of his life, he wrote over 100 technical articles that are still being published by EAA today. His spirit lives on in those articles; he was one of a kind and is missed by many,” Rob said.

Rob explains that the work involved in his operation is enormous, but gratifying. “Both my wife Jill and I are passionate about vintage aviation, and we do work seven days a week. It’s not a job if you love what you do. After all, my definition of success is building a life that you don’t need a vacation from,” he said.