Crash-warning device might not have saved Kobe Bryant's helicopter, experts say
Pilot got special clearance to fly in heavy fog just minutes before Sunday's fatal crash
The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant didn't have a recommended warning system to alert the pilot he was too close to land, but it's not clear it would have averted the crash that killed nine when the aircraft plummeted toward a fog-shrouded hillside, U.S. regulators and experts say.
Pilot Ara Zobayan had been climbing out of the clouds when the aircraft banked left and began a sudden and terrifying 366-metre descent that lasted nearly a minute.
"This is a pretty steep descent at high speed," Jennifer Homendy of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday. "We know that this was a high-energy impact crash."
The aircraft was intact when it hit the ground, but the impact spread debris over more than 150 metres. Remains of the final victims were recovered Tuesday, and so far the remains of Bryant, Zobayan and two other passengers have been identified using fingerprints.
Determining what caused the crash will take months, but investigators may again recommend that to avoid future crashes helicopters carrying six or more passenger seats be equipped with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) that would have sounded an alarm if the aircraft was in danger of crashing.
FAA called for warning system
The agency made that recommendation after a similar helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76A carrying workers to an offshore drilling ship, crashed in the Gulf of Mexico near Galveston, Texas, killing all 10 people on board in 2004.
The NTSB concluded if TAWS had been installed, pilots would have been warned in time to prevent hitting the water. The board recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require the warning systems. Ten years later, the FAA eventually required such systems on air ambulances, but not other helicopters.
FAA officials had questioned whether the technology would work on helicopters, which fly lower and could trigger too many false alarms that might detract from safety.
The NTSB said FAA's response was unacceptable, but dropped the matter.
"Certainly, TAWS could have helped to provide information to the pilot on what terrain the pilot was flying in," Homendy said of the helicopter that was carrying Bryant.
Homendy also said it was too soon to say whether the pilot had control of the helicopter during the steep, high-speed descent, although she noted that "it wouldn't be a normal landing speed."
Bill English, investigator-in-charge of the agency's Major Investigations Division, said it's not clear yet whether "TAWS and this scenario are related to each other."
Pilot had 8,000 hours of experience
Zobayan, 50, was well-acquainted with the skies over Los Angeles and accustomed to flying Bryant and other celebrities.
He had spent thousands of hours ferrying passengers through one of the nation's busiest air spaces and training students how to fly a helicopter. Friends and colleagues described him as skilled, cool and collected, the very qualities you want in a pilot.
Zobayan had flown the day before the crash on a route with the same departure and destination — Orange County to Ventura County. But on Sunday, he had to divert because of heavy fog.
The chartered Sikorsky S-76B plowed into a cloud-shrouded hillside as the retired NBA star was on his way to a youth basketball basketball tournament in which his daughter Gianna was playing. Two of her teammates also were on the helicopter with parents.
Watch: Fans mourn Kobe Bryant as investigators probe crash
NTSB investigators have said Zobayan asked for and received permission from air traffic controllers to proceed in the fog, which Homendy said was "very common." In his last radio transmission before the helicopter went down, he reported that he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer.
Investigators have not faulted his decision. or determined why he made it. The FAA warns helicopter pilots that it is their job to decide whether to cancel a flight because of bad weather or other risks, and to have a backup plan in case weather worsens during the flight.
Zobayan was chief pilot for the craft's owner, Island Express Helicopters. He also was a flight instructor, had more than 8,000 hours of flight time and had flown Bryant and other celebrities, including Kylie Jenner.
Island Express has had three previous helicopter crashes since 1985, two of them fatal, according to the NTSB's accident database. All involved flights to or from the company's main destination of Santa Catalina Island, about 20 miles off the Southern California coast.
On Tuesday, the last of the bodies and the wreckage were recovered from the weekend crash in Calabasas.
Fingerprints were used to confirm the identity of Bryant, 41; Zobayan; John Altobelli, 56; and Sarah Chester, 45. While the the coroner has not identified five other victims, relatives and acquaintances have identified them as:
- Gianna Bryant, 13-year-old daughter of Kobe Bryant.
- Payton Chester, 13-year-old daughter of Sarah Chester.
- Keri Altobelli, wife of John Altobelli.
- Alyssa Altobelli, daughter of John Altobelli.
- Christina Mauser, helped Bryant coach his daughter's team.