Kobe Bryant: Why VIP choppers lack life-saving warning system that costs just $40,000 and can prevent crashes?

The National Transportation Safety Board has been urging the Federal Aviation Authority to make key safety technologies mandatory for over a decade

                            Kobe Bryant: Why VIP choppers lack life-saving warning system that costs just $40,000 and can prevent crashes?
Kobe Bryant (Getty Images)

While an investigation is underway to determine the cause behind the helicopter crash that killed NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others on Sunday, the process could be hampered owing to the aircraft's lack of black box recorders.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been urging federal aviation authorities to make the key safety technology mandatory for all aircraft for over a decade.

According to the NTSB, the doomed chopper also lacked a terrain avoidance warning system (TAWS) -- another technology they have long recommended to be standardized -- when it crashed into a hillside, killing all on board.

Most commercial airliners and some special aircraft are currently required to have the black box recorders, which are designed to gather technical data as well as audio and video footage. However, many helicopters do not fall under the mandate as the Federal Aviation Administration says it's difficult to justify the devices from an economic standpoint, especially since they don't prevent crashes.

Wreckage of the crashed helicopter that was carrying former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna smolders on the ground on January 26, 2020, in Calabasas, California. (Getty Images)

Authorities revealed Tuesday that the bodies of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and all others aboard had been recovered and were currently being examined.

Investigators said debris was spread up to 600 feet across the rugged hillside terrain, thereby extending recovery efforts. The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter was on its way to Camarillo Airport in Ventura County, California, near Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy, when it crashed in Calabasas on Sunday.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Jennifer Homendy, a board member of the NTSB, revealed the lack of aforementioned safety systems on Bryant's aircraft.

Homendy said despite multiple recommendations by the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration declined to incorporate the technology. Meanwhile, several aviation experts have explained how TAWS have saved countless lives.

According to experts, the cost of retrofitting such a system is around $25,000 to $40,000. The system can give pilots an audible warning 10 seconds or more before a potential collision with the ground.

In March 2006, NTSB called on the FAA to require that all U.S.-registered turbine-powered helicopters carrying six or more people be quipped with TAWS. The recommendation came after a very similar helicopter -- a Sikorsky S-76A++ with 10 people aboard -- crashed in the Gulf of Mexico in March 2004 and killed all on board.

While the FAA subsequently mandated the requirement for air ambulances and other medical helicopters, they did not apply it for all such aircraft. In July 2012, the NTSB raised an objection against the agency after years of discussion, deeming it an "unacceptable response."

In September 2014, the NTSB closed the record bemoaning that "unfortunately, the final rule does not require operators to install TAWS on all existing and new U.S.-registered turbine-powered rotorcraft certificated for six or more passenger seats, as recommended."

Then, the board reviewed crashes involving 185 aircraft between 2005 and 2017. They found that 159 of them did not have a recorder equipped and that in 18 of those cases the causes were at least partially unknown due to the same.

According to the NTSB, the boxes are a critical but underused technology that is “readily available, easily installed and largely affordable.”

In 2017, the FAA made another excuse to the NTSB saying it was seeking to perform a cost-benefit analysis for installing such recorders.

The agency said that in order to make the requirement mandatory, they had to demonstrate to the White House budget office that the safety benefits of new regulations outweighed the costs incurred. However, they were unable “to justify a recorder mandate because the benefits of recorders are difficult to identify and quantify because the absence of a recorder will never cause an accident.”

Ara Zobayan, who was flying Bryant's aircraft, had been the chief pilot for Island Express Helicopters of Long Beach (which operated the chopper) for over a decade. The company also revealed Zobayan was a veteran pilot who had logged more than 8,000 flight hours.

But the doomed helicopter's rapid climb and fast descent indicate the pilot had become disoriented, said Jerry Kidrick, a retired Army colonel who now teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

“He made some very rapid movements. That’s indicative of the fact that he was spatially disoriented,” Kidrick told The Washington Post.
“A black box would have been able to tell if that aircraft was in fact maneuvering erratically prior to impact and that would seem to indicate that the pilot was, in fact, experiencing spatial disorientation,” he explained.

And while air traffic control could have denied special permission to Zobayan to fly in worse than normal visibility, it is normal for them to give the green light if they believe there's enough visibility in their airspace. Furthermore, it is "very common" for pilots to make such requests, per the NTSB.

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