The helicopter that crashed Sunday killing basketball star Kobe Bryant and eight others was owned by a charter company that only operated under visual flight rules, and its pilots were not permitted to fly solely based on their cockpit gauges if they encountered weather that limited visibility, a former pilot for the company told Forbes.
The pilot of the doomed flight, Ara Zobayan, was licensed to fly by cockpit instruments, but he likely had little real-world experience in doing so given the operating limitations of Island Express Helicopters, says Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for the company who flew Bryant for two years.
On a morning when heavy fog and low clouds were reported in parts of the Los Angeles area, and law enforcement agencies and helicopter tour companies weren’t flying their choppers, the last radio communication from Zobayan to air traffic controllers was that he was climbing to try to get above a layer of clouds.
“I don’t think he had any actual [experience] inside the clouds,” says Deetz, who notes that it can be unnerving for pilots limited to operating under visual flight rules, or VFR. “You spend your whole career thinking, ‘I shouldn’t do this.’ ”
It’s unknown whether Zobayan’s visibility was in fact impaired, but soon after his last radio message, which came while the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter was headed west following the Ventura Freeway, it ascended to 2,300 feet and then turned abruptly to the south into the Santa Monica Mountains near Calabasas, where it quickly lost altitude and crashed on a slope at 1,085 feet in elevation, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident.
Island Express Helicopters, a Long Beach-based company that has seven helicopters registered to it and a related holding corporation, is certified under Part 135 of FAA regulations to provide on-demand charter services under VFR conditions only, according to FAA records. The regulations impose tight specifications on how air carriers operate, including what kind of weather conditions they can fly in. It’s financially demanding and time-consuming for a company to ensure it and its pilots can operate under instrument flight rules, or IFR, says Dee tz, and in the Los Angeles area, with its usually balmy weather, he says it isn’t worth it for most helicopter operators, apart from emergency medical services.
“You can spend all this money and maybe get three flights a year that you do IFR,” says Deetz, 54, who has flown helicopters in the L.A. area for 30 years.
Zobayan, 50, was the chief pilot for Island Express, where he had worked for ten years, according to a statement on the company’s website, and had 8,200 hours of flight time as of July. An instrument flight instructor as well, he reportedly flew Bryant regularly and Deetz says he knew the area well.
An Island Express representative reached by phone declined to answer questions.
The helicopter took off on Sunday morning at 9:06 a.m. from Orange County’s John Wayne Airport near Bryant’s home, carrying the retired NBA player, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and six others to a basketball tournament at Bryant’s sports academy in Thousand Oaks. Coming north from Los Angeles, Zobayan was allowed to proceed under special visual flight rules through the airspace controlled by Burbank Airport, a not uncommon permission for helicopters in less than ideal weather conditions where the pilot believes they have enough visibility to fly safely. A controller at nearby Van Nuys Airport to the west, whose airspace the helicopter subsequently passed through, advised Zobayan that there was a cloud ceiling in the area of 1,100 feet and visibility of 2.5 miles.
The weather can vary widely throughout the L.A. region, and the area that the helicopter crashed in is a blind spot with no weather reporting station, says Deetz.
“Once you leave Van Nuys, there’s no weather reporting until you get to Camarillo,” he says.
Many pilots in that situation would push forward in the hope that the conditions would turn out to be fine, he says, and either turn back or land nearby if they were not.
The Sikorsky S-76B is certified for single-pilot instrument flying, but Deetz says it’s not something a VFR-restricted pilot would switch to doing lightly, given the legal repercussions.
In a situation where a helicopter pilot inadvertently flies into challenging weather, he says they can declare an emergency requiring that they fly by instruments, and the nearest air traffic controller will vector the aircraft in for a landing.
However, Deetz says, it’s not easy to suddenly switch from VFR to IFR in the clouds, and the S-76B’s rapid descent from 2,300 feet may have been an attempt by Zobayan to get below the ceiling.
“It’s a very unnerving feeling if you’re not ready. He may have gotten in it and thought, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ ”
The helicopter was not equipped with a system that warns pilots when their aircraft is in close proximity to the ground, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said in a media briefing Tuesday. FAA made such systems mandatory for air ambulances in 2014 but declined to act on a 2006 recommendation by NTSB that they be required on all helicopters.
The NTSB’s lead investigator on the case, Bill English, cautioned that it’s too early to say whether a terrain awareness and warning system could have helped prevent the accident.
With the probe into the crash still in its early stages, there are a host of possible factors other than poor visibility that could turn out to have played a role, including a mechanical malfunction.
However, given that weather forecasts for airports near the route of flight appear to have been better than the conditions that Zobayan encountered in the final minutes, the accident could lead NTSB and FAA to re-examine the requirements for special visual flight rule operations, says Alan Diehl, a former NTSB and FAA crash investigator.