MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As investigators try to determine what caused a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others to crash, some have wondered about the safety of helicopter travel.
So, how safe are they? Good Question.
“Helicopters are not inherently dangerous,” says former Army Colonel and current professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Jerry Kidrick. “They’re mechanically sound, there are millions of hours flown without incident.”
In 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated 125 helicopter accidents in the U.S. Twenty-four of them were fatal, including two helicopter tours in Hawaii and one North Memorial Air Care helicopter crash in Brainerd.
According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, 2017 data (which exclude military and airline aircraft) found that accidents with commercial fixed-wing planes occurred 1.92 times for every 100,000 flight hours. They were fatal .56/100,000 flight hours. Accidents with commercial helicopters crashed 2.69 times for every 100,000 flight hours, but were fatal 0.28/100,000 flights hours.
“That tells me that the accident rates for helicopters are higher, but the fatality rate is lower,” says Alan Frazier, professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota.
Kidrick says helicopters differ from fixed-wing planes in a number of ways. First, helicopters often operate under more difficult circumstances, like search and rescue operations or medical ambulances. Second, they fly closer to the ground, which gives pilots just moments to react.
“We rehearse that because you’re near power lines and trees and other obstructions that you may or may not be aware of,” Kidrick says.
Then, there’s the weather, which fixed-wing planes can generally fly around or above after take-off or before landing.
“Helicopters can generally fly in poorer weather because they have the opportunity to land in someone’s backyard,” says Kidrick. “But, should you is always the question.”
For helicopters in the military or ones owned by a company, there’s a structure in place for when it’s safe to fly. If the helicopter is in controlled airspace, there are rules there too.
“It’s up to the pilot, really, for everything once in the air,” says Kidrick.