Kobe Bryant’s helicopter lacked terrain awareness system
The helicopter that slammed into a suburban Los Angeles hillside, killing Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others, lacked a terrain awareness system that could have warned the pilot he was too close to land, officials said.
The Terrain Awareness and Warning System, or TAWS, would have sounded an alarm once the Sikorsky S-76B approached the ground, possibly giving pilot Ara Zobayan time to pull up.
“Certainly, TAWS could have helped to provide information to the pilot on what terrain the pilot was flying in,” Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
In 2006, the NTSB recommended installing the system on all turbine-powered choppers with six or more passenger seats after a similar aircraft — a Sikorsky S-76A carrying workers to an offshore drilling ship — crashed in the Gulf of Mexico, killing all 10 people aboard.
But the Federal Aviation Administration instituted the requirement 10 years later only for air ambulances and other medical helicopters — not for all such helicopters.
FAA officials had questioned whether the system would be effective on helicopters, which fly lower and could trigger too many false alarms that might detract from safety.
The NTSB objected in July 2012 to what it called the FAA’s “unacceptable response,” but dropped the matter.
Federal regulators and experts noted that it was unclear whether TAWS would have averted the tragedy.
Homendy also said it was too soon to say whether Zobayan 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 NTSB’s Major Investigations Division, said it was unclear yet whether “TAWS and this scenario are related to each other.”
Chopper pilot and aviation lawyer Brian Alexander said any collision warning system is welcome but the FAA recognizes they can sometimes do more harm if they are going off constantly and distracting the pilot.
In any case, he said, it’s not clear that one would have helped Bryant’s pilot.
It “wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the crash if this was a combination of a deteriorating weather situation and the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation,” said Alexander of Kreindler & Kreindler.
“Your body is sensing something that isn’t happening. Another warning system screaming at you isn’t going to help,” he added.
While TAWS was not installed on the doomed helicopter, it did have a warning system using GPS, said pilot Kurt Deetz, who flew Bryant in the Sikorsky during a two-year period ending in 2017.
Zobayan’s decision to proceed in deteriorating visibility also has experts wondering if he flew beyond the boundaries of good judgment and whether pressure to get his megastar client where he wanted to go – known in aviation circles as “get-there-itis” — played a role in the crash.
Jerry Kidrick, who flew helicopters in Iraq and now teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, said there can be pressure to fly VIPs despite poor conditions, a situation he experienced when flying military officials.
“The perceived pressure is, ‘‘Man, if I don’t go, they’re going to find somebody who will fly this thing,’” Kidrick said.
NTSB investigators have said Zobayan asked for and received special visual flight rules clearance to proceed in the fog, which Homendy said was “very common.”
In his last radio transmission before the chopper went down, he reported that he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer.
With Post wires
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