Press Articles and Comments


There are currently three articles in this section:

  1.  Horizon’s view on the Kobe Bryant Helicopter Accident using data taken from the Los Angeles Times report on it.
  2.  Extract from a BBC interview with the UK Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, on the UK’s Transport Decarbonisation Strategy
  3.  BBC website article on the production of carbon-net-zero Jet Fuel from food waste

1. The Los Angeles Times: the Kobe
Bryant Helicopter Accident.

On Sunday, January 26, 2020, a Sikorsky S76B helicopter, flying in the Los Angeles area, flew into a hillside causing the loss of many lives, two of them being Kobe Bryant and his young daughter.

Tragic events such as the Kobe Bryant helicopter accident always bring the issue of helicopter safety into the spotlight. The helicopter has to suffer this because of the very nature of how and where it flies – often near to the ground and in bad weather, landing and taking off from confined sites etc, often without the benefit of any landing aids such as ILS. Helicopters are also more prone to mechanical failure than multi-engine, fixed-wing a/c. However, despite all these things, the helicopter saves vastly more lives than it destroys, largely due to its efficiency as an air ambulance and rescue vehicle. It is also uniquely able to go where fixed-wing aircraft cannot.

The Kobe Bryant accident has all the hallmarks of what in the UK is called a ‘press-on-itis’ accident, or in the US a ‘get-there-itis’ accident. In such cases, the priority attached to the flight is to get the passengers to a destination even though the weather picture says essentially ‘do not fly’. Thus, so sad as it was in Kobe’s case, the importance of the need to get to a destination clouds the judgement of the pilot.

The helicopter hit a hill at somewhere around 1000ft height and in cloud. If the pilot had been at so-called ‘safety height’ he would have been well above this height. The pilot’s request for “Special VFR” shows that the conditions didn’t allow normal VFR. “Special VFR” allows the pilot to fly in reduced visibility and cloud clearance, but even with this reduction, he would have been able to see the hills and avoid them. So clearly the visibility was below even “Special VFR” conditions, so he should have turned around 180 degrees and climbed to safety height before resuming the heading for his destination. Had he still then been in cloud he should have switched to flying in IFR mode (i.e. flying without sight of the horizon and using only the five primary cockpit instruments, e.g. the altimeter, for guidance) but, astonishingly, it seems that no air taxi operator in California is licensed to allow IFR flight, presumably because they argue the weather is never bad enough to require it. Typically, an old aircraft like the one Kobe was flying in would require two pilots for IFR flight, so cost comes into it.

On arrival there, he would have had to descend to land at the airport. What is critical is what was the weather at his destination? In other words, if he had climbed into or above the cloud, would he have been able to land after descending through the cloud?  He should have climbed, but would this have risked the whole purpose of getting the passengers to where they wanted to be for their special event? Classic press-on stuff, but Horizon is all about stopping such things turning into tragic accidents.

Now, whilst it is wrong to pre-judge the cause of this accident whilst investigations are on-going, what is clear is that one of two things occurred: no pilot deliberately flies into the ground. So, either he flew into the ground whilst in cloud while hoping that he was above the terrain, or he became disorientated in cloud and lost control, ending up in a dive into the terrain. It is amazingly easy to become disorientated in an aircraft if you lose sight of the horizon, such as when flying in cloud or at night. Mechanical failure is theoretically possible but the coincidence of this happening at the same time as encountering cloud in hilly terrain makes this implausible.

What allows Horizon to claim that such an accident would not have happened had Kobe been flying in a Horizon helicopter?

  • The Horizon flight control system is designed ultimately to allow for fully automated autonomous flight under most weather conditions without the need for a pilot. At present, however, certification issues with all International Authorities do not allow for fully autonomous public transport, but Horizon will be ready when this is permitted. What this means is that, from the outset, Horizon will have all the features which fully-autonomous flight will require. It will be designed such that, if the pilot becomes disoriented, all he has to do is take his hands off the controls and the aircraft will assume a safe attitude immediately. So, a high-speed dive into the ground would be avoided.
  • All Horizon helicopters will fly with a terrain database that allows the flight planning system to work out a route that avoids terrain, either by flying at safety height or flying around terrain that is higher than the pilot wants to fly. The pilot would programme the aircraft before the flight and therefore have a clear picture of the whole flight. In fully autonomous or semi-autonomous operation, this would include the descent, approach and, eventually, an automatic landing at the destination. The need for a “must get there” decision would have been removed.
  • To link into this database the aircraft needs to be able to access GPS data.
  • The flight planner could exercise the option of planning to avoid high ground or maybe pick out a route that avoids the terrain. This would be passed on to the fly-by-wire flight controller that could then fly the route with acceptable deviation. There is a term used in the fixed wing community called CFIT, short for Controlled Flight into Terrain, and nearly all commercial airliners have CFIT avoidance systems installed.  The Kobe accident was not this – it was Uncontrolled Flight Into Terrain. The pilot became disorientated in cloud and lost control, something that the Autocopter would not have allowed to happen.
  • Should the pilot need to deviate from the already planned route without a change in destination, he would have to take over control of the aircraft (by grasping the joystick) and continue to fly it either in an IFR or VFR mode. However, in neither case would the FBW system allow him to fly into terrain. As a last resort and especially if the pilot became disorientated the aircraft would assume a safe attitude and stop in mid-air. Alternatively, by taking his hand off the joystick the aircraft’s flight planner would recalculate the route to the original destination and the FBW system would fly that in a way that it deemed safe. Such an eventuality could, for example, arise from an air traffic control request to hold.

The above is typical of what might have happened in the Kobe Bryant situation, which took place in largely ‘uncluttered’ airspace.  In an urban environment, the problems encountered would be rather different. Here the aircraft would be expected to manoeuvre near to obstacles such as buildings, trees, the occasional tower crane etc, and in gusting conditions that make it more difficult for the pilot to maintain a steady progression of flight or hover position. Here a Horizon aircraft would use its four LIDAR sensors (two in the rotor plane, one downwards looking and the fourth ahead of the aircraft up to 1km) to monitor for obstacles close to the aircraft and again put hard limits on how near the aircraft would be allowed to approach these. As for manoeuvring in uncluttered airspace, the position of the aircraft would be known and controlled through the GPS/inertial sensor and FBW systems working in conjunction, generally referred to as ‘dynamical positioning’.

Finally, there is the issue of making consideration of the weather central to the decision on whether or not to fly. The Horizon machine has been designed with the primary aim in mind of flying safely between two known points. For example, for people who will often fly between home and their business, or between their business and an airport, town centre, sports venue etc. This would then allow for the majority of possible landing sites to be described in terms of take-off and landing coordinates, nearness of buildings, power lines, the best way to approach the landing site, availability of weather data etc. 24hrs before a flight was to be undertaken, an assessment of the weather would then be made and a decision on whether or not to fly taken, further qualified by a telephone call on the day. If, for weather reasons, the pilot decided he needed an alternate landing site, the automatic flight planning system would identify one for him from its database and with full knowledge of the terrain.

So, to summarise, what might have happened if Kobe Bryant had been flying in a Horizon aircraft.

  • The pilot may have decided to fly VFR, but he would have assessed the weather and programmed an alternative IFR flight plan which would have been flown at or above safety height.
  • The pilot would have started, as he did, under VFR, but with a safe alternative plan in the aircraft’s flight control system.
  • If, as occurred, the weather deteriorated en route, he would have selected the IFR option and the aircraft would have climbed safely over the hills and proceeded to its destination, where it would have commenced its descent safely.
  • If, for whatever reason, the pilot flew manually, and took over from the Horizon’s semi-autonomous state, and became disorientated , he could have taken his hands off the controls and the aircraft would have assumed a safe attitude until the pilot felt able to resume control.
  • When certification of the Horizon permits, at his destination the aircraft could have been selected into its auto-land mode by using a combination of GPS-derived position, terrain knowledge, including ground slope, and the 4 Lidar sensors. The Horizon design team will aim to have this cutting-edge mode certified as soon as possible.

And finally, it should be noted that, if the pilot wishes, the aircraft can, of course, be fully manually flown under suitable conditions. There will be a unique pleasure in that.


2. BBC’s Interview with Grant Shapps, the UK Transport Secretary, on the UK’s Transport Decarbonisation Strategy

Published 15th July, 2021

You can carry on flying, the government has told the British public, as it outlines its plan to reduce transport emissions to virtually zero by 2050.

Ministers say new technology will allow domestic flights to be almost emissions-free by 2040, and international aviation to be near zero-carbon by mid-century. The comments on aviation form part of the government’s Transport Decarbonisation Strategy, announced on Wednesday.



Transport is responsible for 27% of the UK’s emissions, making it the single biggest emitting sector. Before the pandemic, flying made up about 7% of overall emissions.

Emissions from flying are set to rise rapidly over the next two decades.

The government has pledged the entire economy will be virtually zero-carbon by mid-century and is relying on new technology to play a significant role in achieving that, especially in aviation.

“It’s not about stopping people doing things: it’s about doing the same things differently,” said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.

“We will still fly on holiday, but in more efficient aircraft, using sustainable fuel. We will still drive, but increasingly in zero-emission cars.”

He told the BBC’s Today Programme that progress towards low-carbon flying was further advanced than people realised.

“We already have electric aircraft, going up in the air, and in fact the UK has become the first country in the world to have a hydrogen aircraft flying as well,” he said.

“In addition to those advanced technologies, we also have things like sustainable aviation fuel.”

Mr Shapps said the government planned to use sustainable fuel to fly home some participants in November’s COP26 conference.


Horizon Helicopters’ Comment:

The UK Government is waking up to the realities of carbon-net-zero. It can’t be done on the basis of battery power alone. It has to be a mix of technologies from batteries to synthetic fuels to hydrogen and several others yet to be publicised.

This exactly follows Horizon’s route for the Autocopter:   batteries – synthetic fuels – hydrogen.

However, it does not yet realise how important power plant and fuel weight is to a transport vehicle. If it did, it would pay far closer attention to the use of synthetic fuels for automobiles and heavy goods vehicles (HGVs). The problem for these is not the IC engine per se but rather the fossil origin of the fuel. The aircraft industry’s push for sustainable fuel essentially solves this problem. It’s only now a matter of investment.


3. BBC Website Article on the Production of Carbon-Net-Zero Jet Fuel From Food Waste

Published 15th July, 2021

A new approach to making jet fuel from food waste has the potential to massively reduce carbon emissions from flying, scientists say.

Currently, most of the food scraps that are used for energy around the world are converted into methane gas. But researchers in the US have found a way of turning this waste into a type of paraffin that works in jet engines. The authors of the new study say the fuel cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 165% compared to fossil energy. This figure comes from the reduction in carbon emitted from airplanes plus the emissions that are avoided when food waste is diverted from landfill.

The aviation industry worldwide is facing some difficult decisions about how to combine increased demand for flying with the need to rapidly cut emissions from the sector.

IMAGE COPYRIGHTNREL                                          Researchers at the NREL lab in the US distilling the new fuel

In the US, airlines currently use around 21 billion gallons of jet fuel every year, with demand expected to double by the middle of the century. At the same time, they have committed to cutting CO2 by 50%. With the development of battery-powered airplanes for long haul flights a distant prospect at this point, much attention has focussed on replacing existing jet fuel with a sustainable alternative.

In fact the UK government has just announced a £15m competition to encourage companies to develop jet fuel from household waste products.

Making paraffin from wet-waste

Current methods of making green jet fuel are based on a similar approach to making biodiesel for cars and heavy goods vehicles. It normally requires the use of virgin vegetable oils as well as waste fats, oil and grease to make the synthetic fuel. At present, it is more economical to convert these oils and wastes into diesel as opposed to jet fuel – which requires an extra step in the process, driving up costs.

Now, researchers say that they have developed an alternative method able to turn food waste, animal manure and waste water into a competitive jet hydrocarbon. Much of this material, termed wet-waste, is at present is turned into methane gas. However, the authors found a way of interrupting this process so it produced volatile fatty acids (VFA) instead of CH4. The researchers were then able to use a form of catalytic conversion to upgrade the VFA to two different forms of sustainable paraffin.

IMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES  Food waste is a global problem and a major cause of global warming emissions

When the two forms were combined they were able to blend 70% of the mixture with regular jet fuel, while still meeting the extremely strict quality criteria that Federal authorities impose on aircraft fuels.

“There’s exciting jet fuels that rely on burning trash and dry waste but this actually works for those wastes that have high water content, which we normally dispose of in landfill,” said Derek Vardon, a senior research engineer at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the lead author on the study. “Being able to show that you can take these volatile fatty acids, and that there’s a really elegant, simple way to turn it into jet fuel – that’s where I see the broader applicability of this one, and folks can continue to develop and refine it.”

The new fuel has a potentially significant impact on emissions as it not only limits the CO2 that comes from fossil sources used by the airlines, but it also gets rid of the methane that would bubble up from landfill if the waste food was just dumped.

Another major advantage is that this new fuel produces around 34% less soot than current standards. This is important because soot plays a key role in the formation of contrails from airplanes which adds a powerful warming effect to CO2 coming from the engines.

“That’s where we see the most potential for this technology is that you’re preventing methane emissions, and dramatically lowering the carbon footprint of jet fuel. And you just can’t do that with fossil fuels without getting into things like offsets,” said Derek Vardon. The research team say they are planning to scale up the production of the new fuel and aim to have test flights with Southwest Airlines in 2023.

Many environmental groups are sceptical about attempts to develop sustainable aviation fuels, believing that it amounts to green-washing. They argue that people should just fly less.

“Sustainable aviation fuel is not a silver bullet,” Derek Vardon says. “So we do want to definitely emphasise that reduction is the most important and most significant change you can make. But there’s also pragmatism and need for aviation solutions now, so that’s where we want to strike a balance as we need a basket of measures, to really start getting our carbon footprint down in a variety of sectors, including aviation.”

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Horizon Helicopters’ Comment:

There are literally dozens of R&D projects underway to produce carbon-net-zero jet and diesel fuels. The goal is the economic production of these. Jet and diesel fuel are fairly closely related in that the molecules involved are both hydrocarbon chains with a mix of carbon atoms from C10 to C15, but they do require slightly different manufacturing processes.