The helicopter that crashed with Kobe Bryant and eight others aboard was equipped with dual engines and all the “bells and whistles” for comfort and safety, except for a terrain warning system that might have prevented the aircraft from slamming into a mountain.
Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and all seven others aboard the Sikorsky S-76B died Jan. 26 when the helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain at high speed. Extremely dense fog blanketed the entire Los Angeles basin that morning – a scenario that some aviation experts and investigators say likely contributed to the crash.
TAWS: a terrain awareness and warning system
In 2004, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that all large passenger helicopters like the Sikorsky S-76B be equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS). The recommendation followed the crash of a Sikorsky S-76A++ helicopter that crashed into the Gulf of Mexico in 2004. All 10 people aboard the chopper were killed.
Despite the NTSB’s recommendation, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has failed to require TAWS on helicopters that can carry six or more people. The systems are mandatory on most commercial airplanes.
In a 2006 report on the 2004 Gulf helicopter crash and the controlled flight into terrain in general, the NTSB concluded that 13 of 17 helicopter crashes that occurred between January 2002 and January 2005 could have been prevented by a TAWS.
“When used for helicopter operations, TAWS can include a forward-looking terrain awareness display, which provides aural alerts and visual indications of terrain and obstacles,” another NTSB report says, according to Southern Colorado’s KOAA News.
Additionally, TAWS can warn helicopter pilots of an excessive rate of descent; excessive speed toward terrain; altitude loss; negative climb rate; terrain along sections of the intended flight route; and several other potentially deadly flight characteristics.
Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB board member leading the investigation of the Kobe Bryant crash, said that the FAA “failed to act” on the safety recommendations.
Pilot’s decisions raise questions
FAA records show that the helicopter’s pilot, Ara Zobayan, was rated for helicopter flying both in visual and instrument conditions when he received his commercial pilot license in 2007. He was also a certified instructor for other pilots seeking to obtain their instrument rating.
It’s unclear why Mr. Zobayan didn’t ask air controllers for permission to switch to flying by instrument.
Mr. Zobayan was flying the helicopter from Santa Ana north to Thousand Oaks, a path that took the aircraft over Los Angeles. He operated the helicopter using visual reference, following Southern California’s freeways at an altitude of about 1,400 feet.
According to USA Today, about halfway through the flight, Mr. Zobayan got permission to fly in conditions below visibility conditions held as the minimum for safe flight. The helicopter then went below the altitude needed for radar tracking.
After that, it then ascended to 2,300 feet and then made a descent left into the path of a mountain and accelerated. The force of the crash created an impact crater.
‘Very scary conditions’
NTSB members investigating the Kobe Bryant crash say they are looking at all potential causes beyond the weather, including mechanical failure. But Zoey Tur, a long-time news helicopter pilot with more than 10,000 flight hours, told USA Today she thinks Mr. Zobayan was lost in the fog and flying too fast for the weather conditions.
She also said that commercial helicopter pilots, who operate in close proximity to passengers, may hesitate to admit they are lost or in a precarious situation for fear of an FAA penalty or passenger complaint, especially from a celebrity.
“You have to be strong enough to tell the VIP on board ‘I can’t do it,'” Ms. Tur told USA Today. “If you get caught in weather conditions, it’s maybe a little bit of a confession.”
She said air traffic controllers could have directed the helicopter to the nearest airport or the pilot could have landed the aircraft in a field. Even barring those possibilities, he could have slowed down as the fog became increasingly blinding, she said.
Robert Ditchey, a longtime airplane pilot, aeronautical engineer and former airline executive who lives in Los Angeles, told USA Today that he questions why the helicopter was flying in “very scary conditions.”
“This was totally avoidable, and on the part of some people I can go as far as to say irresponsible,’’ Mr. Ditchey told USA Today. “Why? What the hell happened?”
Mike Andrews, a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, focuses much of his practice on aviation accident litigation. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. Currently, Mike represents family members of victims in the Ethiopian Airlines crash involving the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft.