REPORT: Helicopter in Tragic Crash That Killed 9 Lacked Key Terrain Warning System

According to a a National Transportation Safety Board official, investigations into the tragic crash that killed 9 including NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter reveal the helicopter lacked a key safety feature: a terrain awareness and warning system.

Per Yahoo, Zoey Tur, a veteran news helicopter pilot with more than 10,000 hours of flying time, said pilots of corporate helicopters, often seated directly with passengers, may be hesitant to admit they are lost or headed into a dicey situation. They may fear a celebrity passenger will ask not to fly with them again or a FAA penalty.

“You have to be strong enough to tell the VIP on board ‘I can’t do it,'” she said. “If you get caught in weather conditions, it’s maybe a little bit of a confession.”

Tur believes Zobayan appears to have lost his way in the fog and was flying too fast for the conditions. Absent a mechanical issue, “this is clear pilot error,” she said. Zobayan could have asked to convert from flying visually to proceeding only on instruments. Air traffic controllers could have directed the helicopter to the closest airport. He could have set down in a vacant field, even if it meant facing FAA penalties, and called limos for his passengers.

And even if he hadn’t of those actions, he could have slowed as fog became a bigger issue, Tur said.

“The pilot was lost in the fog and instead of slowing down, he, for some reason, accelerated,” Tur said.

Flying aboard a luxury helicopter with a veteran pilot at the controls, Kobe Bryant and his seven fellow passengers should have had few worries.

Their Sikorsky S-76B that would whisk them roughly 90 miles from Orange to Ventura Counties, crossing over the heart of Los Angeles, was “like the Cadillac Escalade” of choppers, recalled Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Bryant. That model is a sleek craft with dual engines equipped with “all the bells and whistles,” Deetz said.

Yet it lacked a key safety system: a terrain awareness and warning system, TAWS, a National Transportation Safety Board official said Tuesday. The NTSB had recommended it be required on large passenger-carrying choppers after a Texas crash in 2004, but that never happened.

The remains of the retired NBA superstar, his 13-year-old daughter and the others have now been recovered. Their relatives have been notified, Los Angeles County authorities said.

NTSB investigators finished collecting evidence Tuesday, hauling wreckage out on helicopters in large white bags to be trucked away from the 600-foot debris field. While the cause is it yet to be determined, the thick, gray clouds that obscured much of the area Sunday are being scrutinized as a possible cause.

“We are not just focusing on weather. We are going to take a broad look at everything around this accident,” said Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB board member leading the investigation.

Key questions include:

• Was pilot Ara Zobayan flying too fast, more than 150 miles per hour, and too low in moments before the crash?

• Had he become lost?

• Did the helicopter, despite all of the safety features built into it, incur a mechanical failure?

Besides TAWS, Bryant’s copter also lacked “black boxes” that could aid investigators, Homendy said. NTSB had also previously recommended flight data and cockpit recorders for helicopters, to no avail, Homendy said. Investigators, however, have radar tracking and communications with air traffic controllers.

From that, they know that the helicopter was flying using visual reference, tracking along the Southern California’s maze of freeways beneath them at about 1,400 feet.

Near Burbank, California, about halfway through the journey, Zobayan was granted permission to fly at less than what is considered minimum visibility — three miles with a ceiling of 1,000 feet. The copter fell below levels needed for radar tracking.

It rose to 2,300 feet then began a left descending turn before barreling into a steep mountain slope at a high rate of speed, impacting intact with such force that it left a crater and scattered wreckage over a wide area. The copter came to rest 1,085 feet above sea level, about 30 feet below the crest of the hill where it struck.

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