Surprising no one, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the helicopter crash that killed basketball superstar Kobe Bryant just over a year ago, was the result of poor pilot decision-making. Evidence of that came to light within days of the accident in January 26, 2020.
The surprise came later, when NTSB board chairman, Robert Sumwalt, suggested things might not have taken a turn for the tragic, had two pilots been at the controls that day instead of one.
Bryant, his teenage daughter Gianna, her friends and their parents, a youth basketball coach and the pilot were killed when the S-76 owned by Island Express Helicopters slammed into a hillside in Calabasas, California. The pilot, Ara Zobayan, 50, had become disoriented as he tried to get the helicopter out of clouds. Instead he turned and descended into the ground.
That fog was to be found along the route between Santa Ana where he picked up Bryant and his party and the destination, a sports academy in Thousand Oaks was not a surprise. Zobayan was on a visual flight rules flight yet he did not turn around as he approached instrument conditions, nor did he attempt to land before finding himself in the soup. With these facts in mind, the safety board wrote that Zobayan’s “decision to continue flight under visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions,” led to “spatial disorientation and loss of control.”
With just a few quibbles, members of the board and NTSB staff were in agreement. In a notable exchange, however, Sumwalt and Investigator in Charge, Bill English disagreed as to whether a second pilot might have saved the day.
A commercial helicopter with the passenger capacity of the S-76 can be flown by a single pilot, though the previous owner of the accident aircraft had always flown it with two pilots. English said he’d seen two pilots fall victim to spatial disorientation but Sumwalt said it would increase the safety level.
“I personally believe you can operate a helicopter single-pilot very safely,” until something bad happens Sumwalt told reporters after the meeting. He noted that big users of these aircraft, like oil and gas companies have “pretty much exclusively gone to two pilot operations in aircraft of similar size. Why are they doing that? To enhance the safety margin.”
More than a hunch from a former airline pilot who has been a member of the NTSB’s board for the past 15-years, Sumwalt is saying is what the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association calls “generally accepted wisdom that two pilots lower accident involvement.”
It makes sense. Certainly, a second pilot may have checked what the probable cause report calls the pilot’s self-pressure to deliver his celebrity client to his destination. A large chunk of the Tuesday hearing was taken up in a debate over whether Zobayan “likely” or “possibly” let his relationship with Bryant interfere with his judgment. But when it came time to vote, all five members agreed, “the pilot’s likely self-induced pressure” adversely affected his decision-making. Sumwalt is asking aloud whether a second pilot might have mitigated that.
In a 2019 white paper on the subject of single-pilot operations, the Air Line Pilots Association wrote that pilot monitoring, workload sharing, non-verbal communication and adapting to the dynamic conditions of even the most normal flights make two people working together the safer choice.
Call it crew resource management or error-trapping, it hews to established human factors knowledge but the subject is not among those recommendations the NTSB attached to the accident’s final report.
Still given the high-profile nature of the crash and the reputation of the board member raising the issue, the question of whether two pilots are better than one “likely or possibly” will stimulate conversations in crew rooms and airplane hangars and even among the customers of private air services. Maybe even especially them.
“I want consumers to be aware,” Sumwalt said, “just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is safe.”