Kobe Bryant Helicopter Didn’t Have Critical Warning System, Officials Say

Chopper wasn’t equipped with a ‘terrain awareness’ system that could have provided information about the mountainous area

The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant descended at a rate of 2,000 feet a minute and missed avoiding the hills of Southern California by 20 to 30 feet before the “high-energy impact crash” that killed the basketball star and eight others, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

The chopper wasn’t equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system, or TAWS, which could have provided critical information to the pilot about the mountainous area.

Industry officials have estimated the cost of retrofitting such a system—which in some cases can give pilots an audible warning 10 seconds or more before a potential collision with the ground—at roughly $25,000 to $40,000.

The Sikorsky S-76B model rolled out of the factory before the Federal Aviation Administration mandated such equipment on new choppers, but replacement systems have been available for about 15 years. All business jets and airliners have advanced versions of ground-collision warning systems, as do many medical and air tour helicopters.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Tuesday that the coroner’s office had released the names of four of the deceased: Mr. Bryant, Sarah Chester, John Altobelli and pilot Ara Zobayan. Mr. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was also believed to be aboard in addition to Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser and Payton Chester.

The NTSB briefed family members Tuesday afternoon but didn’t divulge the details of that discussion.

Federal investigators clarified several details of the plane’s final minutes before the fatal crash. The investigators said they recovered an iPad and cellphone in the wreckage, but they haven’t determined to whom they belonged.

They also said that Mr. Zobayan, the pilot, had 1,250 hours of flight time on the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, which Jennifer Homendy, an NTSB board member, described as a “good amount of experience.”

Weather Diversion

With low clouds and fog pushing in from the sea, Kobe Bryant’s helicopter followed an unusual route.

Mr. Zobayan made the same trip from John Wayne Airport to Camarillo Airport on Saturday morning but took a more direct flight path in clear weather. In the foggy conditions of Sunday morning, Mr. Zobayan was told to maintain special visual flight rules at or below 2,500 feet, regulations that are “very common,” Ms. Homendy said.

The helicopter lost communications with air-traffic controllers when it climbed to 2,300 feet as Mr. Zobayan attempted to avoid a cloud layer, NTSB officials said. The helicopter then began a descending left turn and crashed into the hills of Calabasas at roughly 1,085 feet above sea level, the officials said. The chopper was descending at more than 2,000 feet a minute.

“Preliminary information is that the helicopter was in one piece when it impacted the terrain,” Ms. Homendy said. “This is a pretty steep descent at high speed.”

Ms. Homendy’s comments suggest the aircraft didn’t experience a dramatic engine malfunction or structural failure that sheared off a rotor or tore through the body of the chopper. Frequently, investigators can definitively rule out such events through metallurgical examinations, which indicate whether blades, shafts or structural pieces ruptured before or after impact.

“It’s important to realize that there’s not one hill,” added Bill English, an investigator-in-charge with the NTSB. “It’s a ravine with undulating terrain, so the small outcropping that had the main impact in it, the main impact was about 20 to 30 feet from the top of that small hill. But there are actually other higher hills surrounding it.”

The NTSB said it would issue a preliminary report in 10 days with factual information. In about 12 to 18 months, the agency said it hopes to issue a final report with findings, a probable cause and safety recommendations.

“The goal is to prevent a similar accident from happening again,” Ms. Homendy said.

The safety board also has been pushing to retrofit older helicopter fleets with new fuel systems that are less prone to burst into flames in the event of a crash.

The NTSB issued a recommendation in 2006 to the Federal Aviation Administration that would have required TAWS in such a helicopter, but the FAA “failed to act,” said Ms. Homendy. The NTSB closed the recommendation as unacceptable in 2014. An FAA spokesman declined to comment.

Island Express Helicopters, which operated the craft that crashed, couldn’t be reached for comment.

The safety board acted in the wake of the crash of a Sikorsky 76 helicopter in the Gulf of Mexico in March 2004, killing two crew members and eight offshore oil workers. The FAA initially told the safety board it planned to mandate the collision warning system for all helicopters carrying six or more passengers. The NTSB reassessed progress over the years and repeatedly urged regulators to act, before ultimately giving up.

Before Ms. Homendy’s remarks to the press, FAA chief Steve Dickson told the helicopter industry’s largest trade show and conference that all too often, helicopter accidents turn out to be caused by pilot errors. In prepared remarks to the gathering in Anaheim, Calif., Mr. Dickson said that “even when there is a mechanical component failure that leads to a crash,” the root cause is often because “the helicopter was being operated outside its limits.”

Mr. Dickson also said as a result of the latest tragedy, along with seven people who perished when a sightseeing helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain in Hawaii before Christmas, “the public may question whether the benefits are worth the risks.”

Separately, Mr. Dickson told the conference his agency has been conducting research on enhanced vision technologies to help pilots navigate in reduced visibility. He also said the FAA is working with the industry to devise new licensing and training standards for helicopter pilots, emphasizing decision making and risk aversion.

wsj.com / balkantimes.press

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