Reporting by WVUA 23’s Chelsea Barton

The helicopter crash that killed nine people in Calabasas, California – including basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna – has sparked a lot of questions about how such a mistake happened.

Although no official cause has been released, poor flying conditions are known to be a focus of that investigation.

“You just have to always be aware of what is going on around you and what is going on with the helicopter and make sure that nothing out of the ordinary happens,” said Lt. Chris James of the Tuscaloosa Police Department.

This is the 50th year that the Tuscaloosa Police Department has operated its air patrol. James offered some insight regarding what goes into making sure the department’s helicopters are ready for flight.

“We always pre-flight the aircrafts, make sure all the systems are working, make sure that the engine is in good condition,” he said. “Then we just check the weather and make sure we have the proper ceiling and the proper visibility.”

Fellow TPD pilot Sgt. Brian Canterbury said it’s the department’s policy and his personal choice as a pilot not to risk flying in questionable conditions.

“When you get to the point where you can’t see, obviously one, you run the risk of running into an obstacle,” Canterbury said. “There are not a lot of mountains around Tuscaloosa but we do have some big TV towers you could run into. You also run the risk of a collision with another aircraft that is maybe coming and going from the airport and then also, again, when you lose all of your visibility out the windscreen, you can get spacial disorientation, and that can cause you to lose control of the aircraft.”

Spacial disorientation is a flight phenomenon that happens when an aircraft can no longer receive information about its surroundings. This can occur when its sensors or vision instruments are blocked or malfunction. Simply, Canterbury said, the aircraft “gets confused.”

“You may think that you are straight and level and moving forward, but if you were to look down at your instruments and see, the helicopter is starting to turn one way or another, speed up, slow down, go up, go down,” he said. “If you are careful and not really watching and flying off your flight instruments, you can completely lose control of the aircraft.”

These pilots could not stress enough how important precautions from system checks to understanding the weather conditions are for any flight. To Canterbury, heeding precautionary strategies could be the difference between life and death.

“You would be extremely foolish to not do all the checks and steps because, you know, if something happens while we are up there, we can’t just coast over to the side of the road, put on our hazard lights and wait for help,” he said. “If something happens, you are in trouble.”

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