The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said today it was “hard to square” certain elements of the board’s findings regarding the helicopter company involved in the crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and eight other people last year.
The NTSB issued its official report on the Jan. 26, 2020, crash in Calabasas on Tuesday, along with its recommendations to avoid such crashes in the future.
Investigators faulted Burbank-based Island Express for “inadequate review and oversight with the safety management system,” but an NTSB investigator also said he saw no reason to believe the company was an unsafe carrier.
“It is hard to square,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt conceded in a briefing with reporters after the board’s hearing.
“We felt that there was more that they could have done to provide oversight of their operations,” he said, mentioning as one example a 2019 audit by Chevron that found a company safety manager hadn’t received adequate training.
But Sumwalt also said “bad things can happen to good organizations,” and said the company’s overall record didn’t raise any flags.
“They have voluntarily canceled flights due to (bad) weather, and that’s what we want them to do,” he said.
A representative for Island Express said the company would not have any comment on Tuesday’s report.
The NTSB found the crash was caused when pilot Ara Zobayan became disoriented in heavy fog that left him unable to discern up from down, causing him to slam the copter in a hillside.
According to NTSB chief investigator Bill English, Zobayan told an air traffic controller “he was climbing (to) 4,000 feet, however, by that time, the helicopter was in a tightening left turn and descending rapidly. This maneuver is consistent with the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation and limited visibility conditions.”
In his briefing with reporters, Sumwalt said he thinks the crash could have been avoided at any point up until Zobayan flew into the clouds, pointing out that Van Nuys Airport was 10 to 12 miles away, and helicopters can also land in an open field or other unpopulated areas.
Zobayan was operating under visual flight rules, which mandate that pilots need to be able to see where they are going. He was not permitted to fly into the clouds under VFR, according to the NTSB.
Sumwalt said neither Island Express nor Zobayan was legally permitted to operate under instrument flight rules, which require an IFR flight plan and an instrument rating. IFR would have allowed him to fly in the clouds.
Sumwalt noted that many helicopter operators are going to two-pilot models, including the oil and gas industries, but he said he still thinks such aircraft can be safely operated by a single pilot.
Along with Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, also killed in the crash were:
— John Altobelli, 56, longtime coach of the Orange Coast College baseball team, along with his wife, Keri, 46, and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa, who was a teammate of Gianna on Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy basketball team;
— Sarah Chester, 45, and her 13-year-old daughter Payton, who also played with Gianna and Alyssa;
— Christina Mauser, 38, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches on the Mamba Academy team; and
— Zobayan, 50.