Much was said about the cause of the tragedy in the year that the helicopter with Kobe Bryant crashed onto a hill on a foggy morning, killing all nine on board.
Bryant’s widow blamed the pilot. She and families of other victims also blamed the companies that owned and operated the helicopter. The pilot’s brother didn’t blame Bryant but said he knew the risks of flying. The helicopter companies said the weather was an act of God and blamed the air traffic controllers.
On Tuesday, federal security officials are expected to reveal the long-awaited likely cause of the crash, which troubled the retired basketball star worldwide, initiated multiple lawsuits, and resulted in state and federal laws.
“I think the whole world is watching because it’s Kobe,” said Ed Coleman, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and an expert in safety science.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on January 26, 2020 when the helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles
Pilot Ara Zobayan was climbing sharply and nearly bursting through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter abruptly crashed into the hills of Calabasas, instantly killing all nine on board before flames engulfed the wreck.
There was no sign of mechanical failure and it was believed to be an accident, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The board is likely to make non-binding recommendations to prevent future crashes when it meets remotely on Tuesday.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates crashes but has no enforcement powers. It can only make proposals to agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration or the Coast Guard that have repeatedly rejected some of the Board’s safety recommendations following other disasters.
One recommendation could be that helicopters have a Terrain Awareness and Warning System, a device that signals when an aircraft is in danger of falling. The helicopter did not have the system that the NTSB recommended as mandatory for helicopters. The FAA only requires it for ambulances.
Federal lawmakers sponsored the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act to make the devices mandatory for all helicopters with six or more passengers.
Former NTSB chairman James Hall hopes the FAA will need the systems because of the crash.
“In the past, it took high-profile tragedies to move the regulatory needle forward,” he said.
Known as TAWS, the devices start at $ 35,000 per helicopter and require training and maintenance.
The Helicopter Association International advised against a so-called “One Solution Fits All” method. President and CEO James Viola said in a statement that obliging certain devices was “ineffective” and “potentially dangerous” for the entire industry.
Although Zobayan was flying at low altitude in a hilly area, the warning system may not have prevented the crash, Coleman said. The grounds could have set off the “keep going off” alarm and distracted the pilot or prompted him to turn the volume down or ignore, the Embry Riddle professor of security science said.
Federal investigators said Zobayan, a seasoned pilot who has flown with Bryant often, may have “misperceived” the angles at which he descended and leaned, which NTSB documents suggest can occur when a pilot becomes disoriented in poor visibility .
The other people killed were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri, and their daughter Alyssa. Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.
The crash has led to lawsuits and counterclaims.
On the day that a massive memorial service was held at the Staples Center, where Bryant played most of his career, Vanessa sued Bryant Zobayan and the companies that owned and operated the helicopter for negligence and the unjustified death of her husband and daughter . Families of other victims sued the helicopter companies, but not the pilot.
Vanessa Bryant said Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp., did not properly train or oversee Zobayan. She said the pilot flew carelessly and negligently in the fog and should have canceled the flight.
Zobayan’s brother said Kobe Bryant knew the risks of a helicopter flight and that his survivors were not eligible for damages from the pilot’s estate. Island Express Helicopters Inc. declined responsibility, saying the crash was “an act of God” that he could not control.
It also countered two FAA air traffic controllers, saying the crash was due to their “series of incorrect acts and / or omissions”.
The counterclaim alleges that a controller wrongly denied Zobayan’s request for “flight tracking” or radar support when he was operating in the fog. Officials said the controller stopped working because the radar could not be serviced at the altitude at which the plane was flying.
According to the lawsuit, the controller said he would be losing radar and communications shortly, but radar contact was not lost. When a second controller took over, the lawsuit said the first controller failed to notify him of the helicopter and that since the radar services were not properly shut down, the pilot believed he was being followed.
Vanessa Bryant also sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, accusing MPs of sharing unauthorized photos from the crash site. California now has state law prohibiting such behavior.
Associate press writers David Koenig in Dallas and Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed.