Kobe Bryant's Crash Leaves Hollywood Travelers Doubting Helicopter Safety

Wreckage of the crashed helicopter that was carrying former NBA star Kobe Bryant - Getty-H 2020
David McNew/Getty Images

The crash that killed the former Lakers star, his daughter and seven others has the industry questioning the convenience of travel by chopper, even if it’s still safer than driving in a car.

Despite his wealth and fame, former Lakers star Kobe Bryant struggled with traffic alongside everyone else in L.A. Unlike most contemporaries, he devised a workaround. "Traffic started getting really bad and I wound up missing school plays," he said in a 2018 podcast, "That's when I looked into helicopters."

The fiery crash that killed Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, along with seven other people, on Jan. 26 has cast a pall over Hollywood, as the industry weighs the risks of a form of travel exclusive to the C-suite class. "I've always taken helicopters as little as possible," says one TV exec. "Now more than ever, I wouldn't fly in one if the weather wasn't perfect."

The truth is, the risks remain minimal. "From a statistical perspective, helicopters are much safer than small planes," says Ryan Kavanaugh, the former CEO of now-defunct Relativity Media, who for years commuted via helicopter. He adds that helicopters are "not a common means of transportation here, as in, say, London or Paris. People in L.A. are already irrationally scared of helicopters. They can't be more scared than they already are."

Indeed, most of the choppers over L.A. belong to news crews, the Los Angeles Police Department or tourism operators. Large events like Coachella can cause a spike in usage, and they are employed to ferry people to movie sets and around film festivals like Cannes. New York City has a more robust helicopter commuting culture than L.A., especially to travel to the Hamptons. Last year, Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom got engaged on a helicopter.

Even so, says private air-travel consultant Craig Ross of Aviation Portfolio, "Helicopters are not a big business [in L.A.]. Every time there's a high-profile fatality, there is a burst of interest in safety. My phone has been ringing off the hook. But if history is any guide, things will go back to the way they were."

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, helicopter travel is slightly more dangerous than commercial air travel, but much safer than traveling by car or in a small aircraft.

The verdict on what went wrong inside the Sikorsky S-76B (a twin-engine craft usually flown by two people) ferrying Bryant that day will be clear only when the NTSB releases a final report.

Most, if not all, of the other helicopter outfits in SoCal, along with the LAPD's fleet, were grounded Jan. 26 because of poor visibility and possible inclement weather. And while Bryant's pilot was a well-respected 20-year veteran, he didn't have certain flight protocol certifications at the time of the crash, which several sources to whom THR spoke say could have been helpful under the circumstances. The charter company that owned and operated the helicopter, Island Express Helicopters, has suspended all of its services.

Some sources within the L.A. helicopter community speculate that the only reasonable explanation for a seasoned pilot to fly in those conditions was that he was feeling some sort of pressure. Says Ross, "You want a company that will say no to you if all the boxes aren't checked."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.