The Sikorsky S-76 that crashed in California nearly two weeks ago, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others flew into clouds then hit the side of a hill near Calabasas north of Los Angeles, according to a preliminary report on the accident released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The investigators relied on multiple photos from people in the area at the time and at least one security camera. A low, thick cloud layer blanketed the hills as the helicopter disappeared into the clouds.
Ara Zobayan, the 50-year old pilot for Island Express Helicopters, the charter company hired by Bryant, had received proficiency training for inadvertent flight into instrument conditions as part of his flight review in May of 2019, but as has been reported earlier, Island Express was not approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to offer IFR flights. Other helicopter companies in the area have also declined IFR certification citing the expense and the fact that it is so rarely needed in LA.
There has been much public speculation about what might have contributed to Zobayan’s flying the aircraft into instrument conditions, including the YouTube video at the end of this post. The NTSB as is customary made no conclusions about any of the facts released in the preliminary report. It did, however, describe the accident as one with particularly significant impact damage.
The twin-engine helicopter sliced through trees then hit terrain so hard cockpit instruments were dislodged from the panel. Parts of the flight controls, engines and fuselage were destroyed in the subsequent fire.
The accident probe will not get an assist from digital flight data or cockpit voice recorders because Bryant’s helicopter, with its distinctive Black Mamba livery, did not carry them. The company was not required to equip its aircraft with black boxes, though the NTSB has been urging the FAA to require boxes on turbine engine helicopter operators for more than 20 years.
In making its most recent case to the FAA the board said between 2005 and 2017 there were 185 helicopter accidents in which the flight crew was killed. In 85 percent of those accidents, the aircraft did not carry recorders. The FAA said in 2017 that it was not considering mandating their use but it would encourage voluntary compliance by operators.
Recorders don’t prevent the accident under investigation, to be sure. And many avenues are available to help determine what happened. But when it comes to understanding why, recorders make a valuable contribution toward preventing the next crash.
Perhaps this particular disaster, with its high-profile passenger and the tragic number of children and parents aboard will convince the FAA to think again about whether operators should be left to decide for themselves, whether their aircraft should carry data recorders.