Kobe Bryant’s helicopter lacked decades’ old technology that may have avoided terrifying, minute-long deadly plunge

Published 11:24 am Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant didn’t have a long-recommended warning system to alert the pilot he was too close to the ground, but it is not clear whether it would have averted the foggy-weather crash, investigators and other experts say.

At issue is what’s known as a Terrain Awareness and Warning System, or TAWS, which would have sounded an alarm if the aircraft was in danger.

While the cause of the wreck that killed the former NBA superstar, his 13-year-old daughter and the seven others aboard Sunday is still under investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board may again recommend that helicopters with six or more passenger seats be required to have such equipment.

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The pilot in Sunday’s crash, Ara Zobayan, had been climbing out of the clouds when the chartered aircraft banked left and began a sudden and terrifying 1,200-foot (366-meter) descent that lasted nearly a minute, investigators said Tuesday. It slammed into a fog-shrouded hillside, scattering debris more than 500 feet (150 meters).

“This is a pretty steep descent at high speed,” the NTSB’s Jennifer Homendy said. “We know that this was a high-energy impact crash.”

The last of the victims’ bodies were recovered Tuesday, and coroner’s officials said the remains of Bryant, Zobayan and two other passengers have been identified using fingerprints.

The NTSB recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require TAWS 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 aboard in 2004.

Ten years later, the FAA mandated such systems on air ambulances but not other helicopters.

FAA officials had questioned the value of such technology on helicopters, which tend to fly close to buildings and the ground and could trigger too many false alarms that might distract the pilot.

“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.

At the same time, Homendy said it was too soon to say whether the pilot had control of the helicopter as it plummeted. And Bill English, investigator in charge of the NTSB’s Major Investigations Division, said it was not clear yet whether “TAWS and this scenario are related to each other.”

Helicopter pilot and aviation lawyer Brian Alexander said any collision warning system on aircraft going over mountainous terrain is welcome. But he said the FAA recognizes such systems sometimes do more harm if they are going off constantly and distracting the pilot.

In any case, he added, it is not clear one would have helped Bryant’s pilot if, as some aviation veterans have speculated, Zobayan had gotten disoriented in the fog.

“Another warning system screaming at you isn’t going to help,” Alexander said.

The helicopter did have a warning system using GPS, said pilot Kurt Deetz, who flew Bryant dozens of times in the chopper over a two-year period ending in 2017. English said the NTSB is looking to confirm that.

At the time of the crash, Bryant 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.

Zobayan, 50, was well-acquainted with the skies over Los Angeles and accustomed to flying Bryant and other celebrities, racking up thousands of hours ferrying passengers through one of the nation’s busiest air spaces. Friends and colleagues described him as skilled and cool-headed.

His decision to proceed in deteriorating visibility, though, led experts and fellow pilots to wonder whether pressure to get his superstar client where he wanted to go played a role in the crash.

Randy Waldman, a Los Angeles helicopter flight instructor who viewed tracking data of the flight’s path and saw a photo of the dense fog in the area at the time, said Zobayan should have turned around or landed but may have felt pressure to reach his destination, an occupational hazard often referred to as “got-to-get-there-itis” or “get-home-itis.”

“Somebody who’s a wealthy celebrity who can afford a helicopter to go places, the reason they take the helicopter is so they can get from A to B quickly with no hassle,” Waldman said. “Anybody that flies for a living there’s sort of an inherent pressure to get the job done because if too many times they go, ‘No, I don’t think I can fly, the weather’s getting bad or it’s too windy,’ … they’re going to lose their job.”

Deetz said he often flew Bryant to games at Staples Center, and “there was never any pressure Kobe put on any pilot to get somewhere — never, never.”

Coroner’s officials confirmed the remains of Bryant, 41; Zobayan; John Altobelli, 56; and Sarah Chester, 45. Relatives and acquaintances have identified five other victims as Gianna Bryant; Chester’s 13-year-old daughter, Payton; Altobelli’s wife, Keri, and daughter, Alyssa; and Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s team.