Learning from a tragedy

My father had several quotes inscribed on plaques or printed on paper, framed and hung around his shop. Being a reader and growing up around the airport, I remember going around the shop and studying the various posters and plaques. In the office, where the dominant wall hanging was a giant map of the Northwestern United States with a string mounted to our airport with a pin, so you could measure the distance to various other airports, there were two quotes on the wall. One was the famous poem, “High Flight” by Joh Gillespie Magee, Jr. I have a small plaque with that same poem hanging on the wall in my home. The other was a picture of the remains of a biplane, still very recognizable, in a tree. It looked to me like the accident had been survivable, but that detail wasn’t part of the poster. The quote was not attributed on the poster. I later learned that it was said by Alfred Gilmer Lamplugh, a British pilot from the early days of aviation; “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. but to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

I think of that quote when I hear of aviation accidents. Most of the time when there is a tragic accident, there is some element of human failure involved. I used to regularly read summaries of aviation accident reports from the NTSP and the FAA, and still occasionally do. When I was actively flying as a pilot, I felt it was my duty to learn from the accidents of others and avoid similar mistakes. Sometimes the accident isn’t that of the pilot. A shortcut in manufacturing or a failure of adequate training can lead to disastrous results. In the case of the investigations of the two disastrous 737 Max aircraft accidents, it appears that there were a series of errors that go back to design, training, options available on the aircraft and other factors. The lack of oversight may have contributed to the failure to detect and correct these issues before the airplanes went into service.

We all sit up and take notice whenever there is an aviation disaster. The accidents where every occupant of the aircraft is killed make headlines despite the simple fact that 95% of occupants of aircraft involved in accidents survive. Even in incidents that involve fatalities, 55% of those in the aircraft survive. There is even an association of people who have survived more than one aviation accident in the same day, mostly those who were being transported from an accident site by a helicopter that in turn was involved in an accident. Despite those statistics, there are highly publicized accidents where there are no survivors.

There were no survivors yesterday when Kobe Bryant, his daughter and five others died in the crash of a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter near Los Angeles. Bryant was known to frequently travel by helicopter. He once said that the helicopter was no different from his weights or whirlpool tubs or custom-made Nike shoes. Having endured a broken finger, many problems with his knees, a sore back and achy feet, Bryant wasn’t able to sit in a car for hours at a time. The helicopter was used to avoid having to travel in Los Angeles traffic. It meant that he arrived at the Staples Center fresh with his body warm and loose and ready when he stepped onto the court.

The S-76 is a proven helicopter design with a very good safety record. It has been around since the first flight in 1977. Bryant’s helicopter N72EX was a 1991 model B, with a luxury interior with room for two pilots and six passengers. Bryant used the helicopter frequently though it was owned and operated by a holding corporation. He may have simply chartered the same helicopter frequently, or he may have had a full-time lease for the aircraft. Designed for commercial use, the twin turboshaft engines and four-blade main and tail rotors give the aircraft a distinctive sound. It has a record of high reliability in service and is often used for medical operations. The complex design means that most are equipped with the latest avionics and the two-pilot configuration adds redundancy and safety to the operation of the complex machines. Compared to the helicopters we see operating around here, including the hospital helicopters, it is larger and more complex. It also has a better safety record.

The fancy burgundy helicopter that appears in the background with the official seal and the Queen of England stepping out is a S-76. Here in the US the same model is frequently used by oil industry executives for travel to and from off-shore drilling platforms.

The distinctive appearance of the helicopter is not that different from the military UH-60 Black Hawk. They share a similar design heritage. I’m a little bit familiar with the Black Hawks because when I lived in Idaho we had a partnership in a light airplane. Our other partners were all military pilots who, during their transition training into the Black Hawk helicopters were not allowed to fly any other aircraft. I got several months of exclusive use of our airplane because my partners were all in an intensive training program. That kind of intensive training is required by the FAA for the operation of the S-76 involved in yesterday’s accident.

It was one of the best and safest helicopters with a well-trained and competent crew. On the surface, before we know any details, it appears that “carelessness, incapacity or neglect” weren’t factors in what happened.The bottom line is that we don’t know what happened and it will be months before a detailed report on the accident will be released by the NTSB and the FAA.

What we do know is that it is an unspeakable tragedy for the family members who have lost loved ones. They had no reason to suspect that their day would involve such trauma and tragedy. The world has lost a legend and a hero and we can’t explain the reasons.

We are all mortal. We will all die. That much we share with the most famous and talented among us. Some die tragically and at early ages and we don’t get an answer to the question, “Why?” So we share the grief and shock and sadness.

And somewhere in the mix we put the best of our abilities and energies into figuring out what happened and what can be done to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. As uncomfortable as it will be, I will read the accident report. I’ll never be in the market to charter a helicopter, but there still will be things to learn from this tragedy.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!