New details surface on company that owned helicopter in fatal Kobe Bryant crash

Mark Puleo

While the world continues to mourn the loss of beloved basketball star Kobe Bryant and the eight others who died in Sunday's tragic helicopter accident, the fallout from the tragedy and ensuing investigations has had widespread ripple effects.

Island Express Helicopters, which owned the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter that crashed, announced on Thursday that the company would suspend all operations.

"The shock of the accident affected all staff, and management decided that service would be suspended until such time as it was deemed appropriate for staff and customers," the company statement said.

Ara Zobayan

An undated photo posted on Facebook by Group 3 Aviation shows helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan, who was at the controls of the helicopter that crashed in Southern California, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, killing all nine aboard including former Lakers star Kobe Bryant and his young daughter. (Facebook / Group 3 Aviation)

According to the FAA Registry, the serial number belonging to the specific helicopter that crashed on Sunday was set to expire in September 2021.

Kurt Deetz, a former pilot with Island Express Helicopters, told The New York Times that the company didn't have the certifications needed for pilot Ara Zobayan to switch onto instrument flying rules (IFR), meaning that Zobayan was restricted to flying under visual flight rules (VFR) on the foggy Sunday morning. Zobayan himself had the necessary certifications to fly by IFR, according to the report.

An operator at Van Nuys Airport told the Times that none of the other aircraft operators in the region possessed the certifications for IFR, in part because it is normally easy to navigate at low altitude in Southern California due to the generally pleasant weather.

According to the older versions of the company's website, Island Express touted its fleet of Sikorsky S76 helicopters as "the epitome of helicopter travel." The company erased nearly all of its internet presence following the accident, although archives of the company's site map are available.

"IEX Helicopters operates the West Coast's largest fleet of Sikorsky S76 passenger aircraft, the most-trusted name in helicopters," the company wrote. "It is the world's largest and most luxurious passenger helicopter, offering unparalleled speed, comfort, and reliability. Its proven safety record makes it the longest-standing leader of executive helicopters, trusted by countless Presidents, Heads of State and Fortune 100 companies around the world."

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) authorities investigating the crash found that the helicopter from Sunday's accident was not equipped with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS). While it's not clear if TAWS would have prevented Sunday's crash, the NTSB has strongly urged federal regulators to make TAWS a required installation on all helicopters since a similarly tragic accident in 2004.

On Thursday, U.S. Representative Brad Sherman, who represents the 30th district in Southern California, said he is introducing a bill named the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act, which would mandate that the FAA outfit all operational helicopters with TAWS.

"The Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act will direct the FAA to adopt new helicopter safety standards in coordination with the National Transportation Safety Board, which must include a requirement that helicopters be equipped with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System," the congressman announced in a press release. "The legislation will also establish a commission on helicopter safety and require a report to Congress on best practices for helicopters in cases of low visibility."

In an email to USA Today, the FAA said that TAWS is required in helicopter ambulances, which often perform flights at night or in unfamiliar areas. However, private flight operations usually over familiar routes and use established landing areas, which is why the administration has resisted enforcing TAWS to be installed.

Deetz, who had been a personal pilot for Bryant before Zobayan, told The Los Angeles Times that a number of different factors can create a tragic recipe for disaster when pilots are tasked with flying VIP passengers. While Zobayan could have grounded the flight at Burbank Airport, it is a psychologically difficult decision to disappoint your passenger.

This Feb. 1, 2018, photo shows a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter (N72EX) at Van Nuys Airport in Van Nuys, Calif. NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and several others are dead after their helicopter, shown in this February 2018 photo, went down in Southern California. The chopper crashed Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Calabasas, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Hartman)

"Psychologically, that's the hardest part," Deetz told the L.A. Times. "Biting the bullet and saying, ‘The weather's crap, I have to turn back.' It's hard to accept the fact you can't get the job done."

The foggy conditions with a low cloud ceiling during that morning also may have disoriented Zobayan and thrown off his spacial awareness. While the helicopter lacked TAWS, Deetz said it was outfitted with a ground proximity warning system that would have warned him that the ground or an obstacle were approaching. However, Deetz added that the alert was occasionally too sensitively triggered and that pilots sometimes shut the radio off or tuned the alerts out.

William Lawrence, an aviation consultant and accident investigator, explained to the L.A. Times that spatial disorientation could have occurred for Zobayan when he was rising into the clouds, shortly before the helicopter plummeted to its demise.

Pilot Ted Rosenberg explained to WFMZ that spatial disorientation is when a pilot loses a sense of direction due to vertigo and is especially dangerous in low-visibility situations when a pilot is required to judge distances off of the cloud ceiling rather than the horizon.

"Introduce vertigo into that situation and all of a sudden you feel like you're turning right, but you're turning left and start making stronger and stronger inputs to try to counteract that feeling you have and you lose control of the aircraft," he explained.

Dr. Michael Canders, a former Air Force helicopter rescue pilot who currently serves as director of the Aviation Center at Farmingdale State College, told AccuWeather that quickly deteriorating conditions can force pilots into decisions that alter from their original flight plans.

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"What happens sometimes on a VFR day is that conditions deteriorate from some weather that wasn't forecasted, which sort of forces you into a different decision," the aviation expert said. "So you could be flying on a VFR day when suddenly the ceiling and the visibility drops and so what pilots will do then is file a flight plan in the air. But, the problem, of course, is that air traffic controllers are typically busy doing other things, so it can take a while to get all of that done. So you can find your hands full in deteriorating weather conditions and no one wants to be in that situation."

As evidence and information continues to be unveiled while experts and eyewitnesses continue to share perspectives, the world has remained in mourning. League-wide tributes from NBA teams around the country have marked the week of sadness while fans around the world have gathered for vigils.

The league also announced that at the NBA All-Star Game, the winner would be determined by the team that reaches a target score: the leading team's score total plus 24 points, with the number 24 being a nod to Bryant's jersey number. Throughout the game, tributes will also be made to the nine victims and charities will be awarded.

Other tributes have included a reserved seat at the University of Connecticut women's basketball game for Bryant's daughter, Gianna, who was also on the fateful helicopter.

The Bryant family issued a statement requesting privacy on Thursday night after erroneous reports have cropped up.

"We are disappointed in some media's broad use of unnamed sources and blind quotes, and remind everyone that the Bryant family will speak on our own behalf when appropriate," said Molly Carter, president of Kobe Inc. "To this point, no one has been authorized to speak on behalf of the family regarding any personal details surrounding Sunday's tragedy, including stories related to the family's previous air travel decisions. We ask members of the media for respect and responsible judgment during this difficult time. These inaccurate reports only add unnecessary pain to a grieving family."

On Wednesday, Vanessa Bryant, the basketball legend's wife and the mother, shared her gratitude for the support her family has received on Instagram.

"We are completely devastated by the sudden loss of my adoring husband, Kobe - the amazing father of our children; and my beautiful, sweet Gianna - a loving, thoughtful, and wonderful daughter, and amazing sister to Natalia, Bianka, and Capri," Bryant, 37, said. "We are also devastated for the families who lost their loved ones on Sunday, and we share in their grief intimately."

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