Elmo Jayawardena, in The Island, 24 June 2020, where the title reads “Did Kobe Bryant die in vain?”
The National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) of the USA has come out with a 1700-page investigation report on the helicopter crash in Los Angeles in which Kobe Bryant and his daughter died. The pilot was also killed along with 6 other passengers in this tragic accident. The report has given no final conclusion as to the cause of the crash. In aviation that is the norm in most such events. Thousands of pages written by the powers that be who are mired in bureaucracy that end their conclusions without a conclusion. Finally, they may come out with the Ace of Trumps as the cause – Pilot Error.
“How some things become legal at times is more a fairy tale than a legality.” …. Quote of the Week
Looks like that is the way this accident report too is heading. Yes or No? – I do not know. Maybe it was pilot error, maybe he got disoriented, maybe he had a heart attack. Who knows? 1700 pages written by NTSB with all their expertise and high technology could not arrive at a decisive conclusion. I want to bring out some mitigating factors about this helicopter operation and the accident that has perhaps been pushed under the carpet. You can logically reason out and come to a conclusion as to where lies the blame for the crash. The explanation is simple, and it is one solitary word – MONEY.
I humbly say I am conversant with aviation, having flown and instructed in all types of aeroplanes and simulators for more than 50 years. There must be something I too must know about flying machines.
Two factors come to my mind after reading and watching all the information that is available on Youtube and the written word…
1/ The helicopter that hit high ground did not have a Terrain Avoidance and Warning System (acronym TAWS) installed.
2/ The Sikorsky-S76B is operationally a very hi-tech machine with a sophisticated flight-deck for two pilots. On this unfortunate day it was operated by only one pilot.
Island Express Helicopters that owned the chopper that Kobe flew on January 26th mainly carried VIPs, people with money who could afford to have the best safety features in machines they rented and flew. TAWS was categorised by the NTSB as a recommended safety equipment and was not a mandatory requirement for a helicopter. Why? The answer is SIMPLE – money, it was cheaper to operate without TAWS.
Now we come to the number of pilots required to fly this helicopter. Above is the cockpit of the Sikorsky-S76B. It is made for a two-pilot operation with dual controls. All the flight instruments on the left side are duplicated on the right side for any pilot to fly it from either side.
The Sikorsky has a range of less than 400 nautical miles. Then we can conclude the dual controls are not for long range work to ease the fatigue factors between two pilots. It is more for a higher level of safety to competently handle a sophisticated GLASS COCKPIT flight deck. The question is how come Kobe’s flight had ONLY one pilot? The clear reason for that is cost-cutting. One pilot flying the chopper is so much cheaper than paying two pilots. It is legal. How some things become legal at times is more a fairy tale than a legality.
In 2004 a similar helicopter flying US skies crashed in the Gulf of Mexico. It killed allon board. After thorough investigations, the NTSB made it mandatory that any helicopter carrying more than 5 passengers MUST be a dual pilot operation. That is my recollection. NTSB was over-ruled by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and the MANDATORY classification was removed and replaced with RECOMMENDED. How such things happen no one knows. But supposing there were two pilots in the Sikorsky cockpit when Kobe and his party flew, things certainly would have been very different to the way things happened and killed 9 innocent people.
Most experts believe the pilot was disoriented, got confused with the pitch attitude, thought he was climbing when he was descending. It is a strong possibility as such things do happen when you are in a cloud without visual references. The point I am trying to make is if there were two pilots in the cockpit the chances are quite slim for both pilots to get disoriented at the same time. The possibility may exist, but the probability is extremely low. Yes, it was cheaper to operate with one pilot and it was legal too with the blessings of the FAA.
The flight took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County under acceptable visibility conditions and proceeded to where the Mamba Sports Academy owned by Kobe Bryant is located. I will leave out the mundane details of the initial part of the flight as all that is well-known. Then Air Traffic Control (ATC) gave instructions for the helicopter to hold at a given point. This was to clear some air traffic and Capt. Zobayan entered a holding pattern and held for eleven minutes before he received clearance to proceed to his destination. Whilst the helicopter was flying the holding pattern the weather started deteriorating with fog rolling in and the visibility reducing. Capt. Zobayan may have seen it all, yet he decided to continue the flight in spite of the reducing visibility. Perhaps if he had another pilot in the right seat the latter may have thought differently and prompted Capt. Zobayan to turn back. The threat of low visibility was there, but the threat management was by a single pilot, to whom the initial safety factor of a discussed calculated decision was not available; he had no one to evaluate the visibility situation that was becoming a threat whilst he was in the holding pattern. Eleven minutes is a very long time flying a hold; more than adequate to make a clear calculated decision if there were two pilots in the cockpit. A second opinion would have been invaluable.
Capt. Zobayan came out of the holding pattern and proceeded to fly above the Freeway 101 making an intuitive decision to reach his destination.
As the weather was closing in, the helicopter was cleared by ATC to climb to 4000 ft which was above the low fog layer. The pilot was heading North/West and commenced climbing in cloud to its cleared altitude. For some reason, the helicopter turned left to the West and then continued the turn to South/East and whilst turning commenced an abnormal rapid descent at almost 4000 ft per minute.
That is when the Sikorsky hit a high ground and burst into flames.
This is a very strange performance from an experienced pilot.
The authorities examining the crash concluded that the helicopter hit the ground with ‘powered rotation’ which means the engine was operating normal when the crash occurred, which in aviation is called a CFIT, a controlled flight into terrain.
If the engine was operating normal, maybe the pilot was not. So many aircraft have experienced a pilot becoming incapacitated and the other pilot taking over and landing the plane. That is a reasonable possibility in this crash too and if Capt. Zobayan was incapacitated for some reason, the illogical turns to the West and then to the South/East at a very high rate of descent would have been possible.
That is where a second pilot sitting on the right seat would have taken over controls and flown the Sikorsky to safety.
I did not see any mention of a possible pilot incapacitation or an autopsy on Capt. Zobayan suffered a black-out or a heart attack.
It is an indisputable fact that many factors that may have contributed to the crash could have been avoided if there was a second pilot.
Kobe Bryant would not have known that he paid a little less money to fly with one pilot. He certainly would have been totally ignorant that the company that owned the helicopter had saved some more money by not fixing a TAWS for protection against colliding with terrain.
There is an age-old cliche in aviation ‘if you think safety is expensive, try an accident.”
Kobe Bryant is no more, so is his little daughter and the six passengers and Capt. Zobayan.
Now the blame game has begun and there is a high probability that it will be concluded as a crash due to pilot error. Capt. Zobayan will not be there to defend himself and announce this could have been avoided if his helicopter was fitted with TAWS. He may have also disclosed that if he had a co-pilot to discuss matters and make a threat assessment, perhaps he would have turned back when the weather deteriorated. Unfortunately, the cookie has already crumbled, and Capt. Ara Zobayan may be found totally liable for this tragic crash.
That is nothing new in aviation. The power people will always have their expensive lawyers to obliterate the truth in order to defend their clients and their cost-cutting decisions in the operation of their sophisticated flying machines.
The sad veracity is Kobe Bryant died in vain.
Capt Elmo Jayawardena