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Helicopter company involved in Kobe Bryant crash not permitted to fly in fog

The company that owned the helicopter that crashed in Southern California on Jan. 26 killing Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others was not licensed to operate in foggy weather conditions that require pilots to rely on cockpit instruments, federal officials told Reuters.

Kobe Bryant at Philadelphia youth event, March 2019
Kobe Bryant at Philadelphia youth event, March 2019

Island Express Helicopters of Long Beach, California, was restricted to flying only when pilots could visually see where they are going.

When the crash occurred, the fog along the helicopter’s flight path was severe enough to ground helicopters operated by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division as well as those of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept.

The weather was clear when the helicopter carrying Kobe departed from Santa Ana, bound for Thousand Oaks, where Kobe was set to coach his daughter Gianna’s basketball game. An hour later, the Sikorsky S-76B was mired in thick fog that shrouded the Los Angeles basin.

Pilot called for help

Pilot Ara Zobayan radioed air traffic controllers asking for special clearance to fly in the poor conditions. He circled above Los Angeles for 12 minutes as he awaited permission to fly on Special Visual Flight Rules, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator Jennifer Homedy said.

He then requested “flight following,” a special assistance that can provide improved situational awareness and helps pilots to avoid collisions. However, controllers told Mr. Zobayan that he was flying too low to be picked up by radar. Meanwhile, the weather conditions continued to deteriorate.

Ms. Homedy said that Mr. Zobayan then climbed “to avoid a cloud layer.” He then descended into a left turn, at which time communication was lost “consistent with the accident location.”

Flying by instrument?

Mr. Zobayan was an instrument-rated commercial pilot, meaning he was federally licensed to fly relying solely on cockpit instruments. He was even trained to teach other pilots seeking to get their instrument rating. Investigators have not determined if he attempted to fly the helicopter by instruments.

Although Mr. Zobayan was technically qualified to fly by instrument, experts say it’s unlikely he had much experience operating helicopters in that manner. He had flown helicopters professionally for Island Express for several years, and although he was qualified to fly by instruments, Island Express is limited to operating its helicopter fleet only when pilots have clear visual reference.

Kurt Deetz, a pilot who formerly worked with Mr. Zobayan at Island Express and also used to fly Kobe Bryant, told Forbes that Mr. Zobayan likely lacked any real-world experience flying inside the clouds.

The helicopter also lacked a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS), which the NTSB has recommended for larger helicopters for more than 15 years.

On Jan. 30, Island Express announced it had suspended all of its operations immediately after the crash.

“The shock of the accident affected all staff, and management decided that service would be suspended until such time as it was deemed appropriate for staff and customers,” the company’s statement says.

Additional sources:
Los Angeles Times
New York Times

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