The helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others isn’t just tragic — it’s thus far unexplained.
Fans and family members alike are waiting for some kind of answer, and the National Transportation and Safety Board is working hard to get to the bottom of this. From what we learned earlier this week, the chopper took off from Santa Ana just after 9 a.m. on Sunday despite the fog being so bad even police choppers were grounded.
The Sikorsky S-76B chopper was being flown by Ara Zobayan, a 50-year-old pilot with more than 10 years and 8,200 hours of experience; as noted by Kylie Jenner in her tribute, he flew celebrities around a lot, including members of the Kardashian fam, in that very aircraft.
Zobayan apparently believed he could handle the weather conditions as he took off using VFR, or visual flight rules. He had the certification to do so; however, that decision may still not have been ethical.
Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Island Express Helicopters, the company Zobayan flew for, told Forbes while they were allowed to fly in weather where the visibility was limited to the point where they had to use instruments alone, they were NOT permitted to carry passengers in it. So if Zobayan couldn’t see, he was breaking the rules bringing up eight people — including three children.
Unfortunately we can’t know for sure what the pilot could see. In a press conference on Tuesday the NTSB confirmed the helicopter did not have a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder.
What investigators have been able to determine is the helicopter was heading west to Kobe’s sports academy in Thousand Oaks — but then climbed to 2,300 feet, presumably to get above the clouds as he told air traffic controllers in his last radio transmission. He then turned sharply southward into the Santa Monica Mountains. There it very quickly dropped in altitude and crashed on a slope at 1,085 feet in elevation. That 1,200 foot descent must have felt like a terrifying drop, with experts saying the chopper plummeted 500 feet in just 15 seconds. It all ended in a “high energy impact crash” about 20-30 feet below the top of the hill.
Was all of this because the pilot couldn’t see? Was this really all avoidable?? There apparently was the possibility of switching from visual flight rules to instrument flight rules. However, according to a new report in The New York Times most commercial companies don’t bother with IFR certification because of the extra training and insurance required — it’s simpler just not to fly in those conditions.
Group 3 Aviation owner Claudia Lowry explained not even police helicopters in SoCal maintain the certification as they fly in sunny weather so often:
“It’s not worth it, we don’t fly in that kind of weather anyway. And most of the time the weather is good.”
Deetz concurred, telling Forbes:
“You can spend all this money and maybe get three flights a year that you do IFR.”
This may also explain another revelation from the NTSB this week; the chopper was NOT equipped with TAWS, terrain awareness and warning system, technology which warns pilots when a collision with the ground is imminent even when they aren’t able to see it. However, they can not definitively say if TAWS would have helped in this situation and the system is currently only mandated on air ambulances.
Island Express has not commented on any of these developments as the investigation is still going. However, they did announce they had suspended all flights for the time being. Their statement read:
“The shock of the accident affected all staff, and management decided that the service would be suspended until such time as it was deemed appropriate for staff and customers.”
Probably a good call. There are seven helicopters registered to the company, but we can’t imagine anyone would feel super comfortable going up in one right now. However, is the shock really the only reason? Or are they saving face while the NTSB investigates their remaining craft and certifications?
We’ll let you know as more developments come to light.
[Image via WENN/Cover/Avalon.]