Helicopters come to grief all too often after encountering clouds or fog. In fact, it seems that it was an encounter with low clouds that lead to the fatal Safari Helicopter Crash on Kauai just a few weeks ago.

Fog can lead to a helicopter crash in two ways. First, the pilot can, upon encountering clouds, lose track of the horizon. Once that happens, the pilot may not know which way is up. The disoriented pilot will soon lose control of the helicopter and crash.

Second, once in the clouds, the pilot may maintain control of the helicopter only to collide with terrain he cannot see – or cannot see until it is too late. The type of accident is called “controlled flight into terrain,” or CFIT.

CFIT accidents are especially common in conditions such as those that Bryant’s helicopter encountered. The pilot, trying to stay beneath the clouds, may be forced lower and lower. Or, he may be forced away from the road or valley that marked his intended flight path towards the hills that surround that flight path. Suddenly, the pilot finds himself face-to-face with rising terrain.  A CFIT in the making.

If the pilot sees the terrain in time, the only way to avoid it may be to turn into the clouds or fog he was seeking to avoid. It’s possible that is just what Kobe Bryant’s pilot did, as radar tracking shows the aircraft climbing suddenly. After all, once in the clouds, climbing is the pilot’s best hope for avoiding terrain he cannot see. But, of course, once in the clouds, it is all too easy to become disoriented, lose control of the aircraft, and crash.

Why didn’t Bryant’s pilot just fly by instruments? Flying by instruments, especially in a helicopter, is a difficult, technical endeavor. It’s not enough for the pilot to hold an instrument rating. For a pilot to legally fly on an instrument flight plan, the helicopter must be specially equipped and the pilot must be current on all instrument procedures, having completed a minimum number of recent instrument flights. Finally, when flying on instruments the pilot must follow an inconvenient and often circuitous routing, contend with holding patterns, and follow the instructions of an air traffic controller. In short, flying visually is often quicker and easier.

So, what might the pilot have done here? He could have simply stayed on the ground. After all, he knew when he took off that the weather was marginal, as he needed a “special VFR” clearance to depart the airport.  Or, if he was instrument-current and the aircraft properly equipped, he could have filed an instrument flight plan. Failing that, once he encountered fog or clouds on route, he could have returned to the airport. Finally, if the weather had closed in behind him, precluding a safe return, he could have considered the helicopter pilot’s mantra – “land and live.”

The NTSB won’t come out with its conclusion as to the cause of the crash for months if not years. But from what we know now, it sure looks like “continued VFR into IMC,” which is the NTSB’s phrase for flying visually into conditions of poor visibility.

This video shows what can happen when a helicopter presses on into clouds or fog.  (Warning – disturbing.)