Kobe Bryant’s Helicopter Lacked Terrain Warning Device, NTSB Says

By Alan Levin | January 29, 2020

The helicopter ferrying basketball legend Kobe Bryant and eight others that slammed into a hillside near Los Angeles Sunday wasn’t equipped with a device designed to warn pilots when they’re in danger of hitting rising terrain.

Investigators cautioned they weren’t sure whether a so-called Terrain Avoidance and Warning System — a device required on airliners — would have prevented the crash, but said it might have helped the pilot be more aware as he neared the fog-shrouded hills.

The chopper was plummeting at more than 2,000 feet per minute as it made a sharp left turn, National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said at a briefing Tuesday.

“We know this was a high-energy impact crash,” Homendy said. “This is a pretty steep descent at high speed, so it wouldn’t be a normal landing speed.”

The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter operated by Island Express Helicopters Inc. was carrying Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others. The company wasn’t permitted by aviation regulators to fly into the kind of fog and clouds that apparently enveloped the aircraft in its final moments before crashing, NTSB’s investigator-in-charge William English said at the briefing.

It’s still not clear why the pilot took that path and investigators expect to take a year to 18 months before concluding the investigation. They plan to release a preliminary report within 10 days.

About a minute before the crash, the helicopter’s pilot radioed an air-traffic controller to say he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer. Low clouds and fog were present in the area.

The controller replied, asking him what he planned to do. There was no reply.

It’s possible that the pilot was making an abrupt turn to escape the clouds, said John Cox, a former airline pilot and president of Safety Operating Systems.

When helicopters turn sharply, they tend to lose lift and can drop rapidly if pilots aren’t careful, Cox said.

“That rate of descent can pick up very quickly,” Cox said.

The helicopter had taken off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, earlier in the morning and had encountered deteriorating weather as it flew north.

NTSB investigators used a drone to re-enact part of the final moments of the flight and comb the hillside for key pieces of wreckage, Homendy said. A tablet computer and other electronic devices have been recovered and will be examined in Washington.

She briefed family members of the victims by telephone earlier Tuesday, but declined to discuss who was on the conference call and what was said.

The NTSB had recommended after a 2004 crash that all mid- to large-size helicopters be equipped with the terrain warning devices, Homendy said. The Federal Aviation Administration has required air ambulance helicopters to have the warning systems, but not copters used to carry passengers for hire. The response was labeled as “unacceptable” by the NTSB.

The helicopter also wasn’t equipped with the crash-proof voice and data recorders found on airliners, and wasn’t required to have them, Homendy said. The NTSB has also unsuccessfully recommended that regulators expand use of the recorders to more helicopters.

Island Express had suffered four crashes spread over 35 years before Sunday’s crash. A mid-air collision in 1985 and an emergency landing in 2008 killed a total of four people, according to government records.

In a 2016 action, the company paid a $8,500 civil penalty to the Federal Aviation Administration for failure to perform drug tests on its employees.

There’s no indication that the previous crashes or enforcement cases were related to Sunday’s accident.

–With assistance from Ryan Beene.

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