There are old pilots.  There are bold pilots.  There are few old, bold pilots.  That venerable adage took on new meaning after I got my private pilot license about 30 years ago.  I haven’t flown single engine planes in the last ten years although my license remains valid.

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Cessna 172 Skyhawk, the plane I flew most.

On Monday when I learned of the tragic accident that took the life of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna (Gigi) and seven other amazing individuals, memories of my flying days came back.

Mamba Mentality

I’ve seen many testimonials from many of Kobe’s former teammates, opponents and friends about what a great talent, fierce competitor, and loving father he was.  Much of his success was attributed to the Mamba Mentality, his philosophy of basketball and life.

Mamba Mentality means different things to different people.  It also has meant different things to Kobe over time.  Broadly speaking, it translates to relentlessness, confidence, ambition, constant self improvement, and a will to win that is second to none.  It also stands for setting a goal and achieving it through hard work and dedication despite the presence of substantial obstacles.

In many ways the Mamba Mentality corresponds to what used to be called the Type A personality.  As a pilot, I’m familiar with Type As.  I have a moderate amount of some of those traits myself.

But in flying, Type A behavior can lead to trouble.  Pilots of small planes refer to a single-minded desire to get someplace despite weather or other obstacles as “getthereitis.”  That affliction is sometimes fatal.

I’ve read numerous accident reports involving pilots trained for visual flight rules (VFR) or  instrument-rated pilots who have not maintained instrument proficiency “scud running” under low clouds to reach a destination.  Often it works.  Accidents are likely, though, if they are unable to avoid instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), i. e., clouds or precipitation, and lose visual reference to the horizon.

In the accident involving Kobe, the pilot was very experienced, and the aircraft, a Sikorsky S-76, is tried and true.  It was reported that the pilot had over 8,000 hours as a pilot in command, held an instrument rating, and had severed as Kobe’s pilot for several years.  However his employer, Island Express Helicopters, was not certified for instrument flight conditions, which are frankly unusual in Southern California.  Kobe’s pilot, therefore, was also restricted to VFR flight when flying Island Express helicopters.

As Kobe’s flight approached the Calabasas Hills, the pilot asked to continue under Special VFR flight rules that allow helicopters to fly in conditions that are worse than normal VFR requirements.  The helicopter crashed not long after that.  If the pilot never flew in IMC because of normal Southern California weather and restrictions on his employer, his instrument skills might have deteriorated leading to disorientation and loss of control in cloud.

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Sikorsky S-76 and Kobe Bryant.  Credit:  Businessinsider

I don’t know the discussions held before takeoff.  The weather was bad enough to ground L. A. police helicopters.  However, any charter pilot flying an important client like Kobe, feels pressure to get the client to the destination as scheduled.  Could Mamba Mentality on the part of Kobe or the pilot have played a role in the decision to takeoff and fly despite bad weather?  At this point no one can say.  Kobe may have not even known about the marginal weather conditions much less understood the risks.

It usually takes a year or more for the National Transportation Safety Board to release an accident report.  Other than the fact that nine precious lives were lost, it is all speculation at this point as to what really happened.

My Connection Between The Coronavirus And The Mamba Mentality

A few weeks ago, I booked a flight to Shanghai (PVG) departing on February 13 returning February 23 that had an overnight connection to another flight to Phuket, Thailand through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

For the last two weeks I struggled trying to decide whether to cancel the trip due to the coronavirus outbreak.  My Mamba Mentality was telling me the risks were small and I would be fine.

Factors in favor of going:

  • I’d only be in China for less than 24 hours coming and going.
  • My health is good.
  • I’d be careful to take vitamins, wear a mask, wash hands frequently, and try to avoid touching mucous membranes.
  • They say flu spreads easier and is more lethal than coronavirus.
  •  I might not be able to recover the costs of my hotel and the flight from Shanghai to Phuket.
  • While I was assured of credit without penalty for my ticket to Shanghai on Delta, there were no guarantees of rebooking later at the same fare or lower or of being able to use a Delta global upgrade certificate to upgrade a coach ticket  to business class as I had on these flights.
  • If anything goes wrong, I have very good travel medical insurance including medical evacuation coverage.

On the other hand:

  •  Not going eliminates almost all risk of catching coronavirus as no cases have been reported in the U. S. near my home.
  • Even if I don’t get sick, there is the possibility of getting quarantined somewhere.

The Final Decision

Kobe’s accident was the deciding factor.  It made me realize my Mamba Mentality, which pales compared to Kobe’s, was suffering from a severe case of getthereitis.  I could go and would probably be fine, but not going eliminates all risk.  And going another time is always an option even if it costs additional dollars.  Discretion is often the better part of valor.  The old pilot won out over the bold pilot.

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Flying gliders at Dillingham Airfield Oahu, Hawaii in 2016.

About the same time I decided not to go, Delta Air Lines completely sealed the deal by shutting down all flights to China from February 6 to April 30, 2020.  Planning future travel to or through China is hard because it is always possible that ban could be lifted before April 30 or extended.

Have you ever experienced a bout of getthereitis?