Citing the Calabasas helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others a year ago Tuesday, local legislators are calling for mandatory Terrain Avoidance Warning Systems on all choppers carrying six or more passengers, but at least one Los Angeles-based pilot says the safety system wouldn’t have made a difference that day.
“Mandatory terrain awareness equipment on all helicopters has been recommended by the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) for 15 years,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, who announced the “Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act” Monday with Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks. “It’s clear the simple addition of this equipment will help keep passengers safe and prevent crashes due to poor visibility.”
Despite the NTSB’s recommendation that the equipment be mandatory, the Federal Aviation Administration only requires air ambulances to carry it.
Feinstein said last January’s tragedy shows “just how deadly flying in low visibility without this equipment can be.”
“The accident may very well have been avoided if terrain awareness equipment were mandatory as this bill will ensure it is,” she said.
Los Angeles-based helicopter pilot Kurt Deetz, who often flew the Bryant family between 2015 and 2017 while working for Island Express Helicopters, has his own ideas about how effective TAWS would have been in saving lives last Jan. 26, as pilot Ara Zobayan flew through foggy conditions.
Deetz said he’s 99.99% sure — even without the final NTSB report — that TAWS wouldn’t have helped prevent the fatal crash.
“Would TAWS have helped? No, absolutely not, it would not have prevented this accident,” Deetz told City News Service on Tuesday. “He’s (Zobayan) 100% at fault. He was a friend of mine, but he made some really bad choices that day.”
Documents made public last year by the NTSB lent credence to the growing theory the 50-year-old pilot might have become disoriented while navigating through the fog while ferrying the passengers from Orange County to Camarillo.
Zobayan’s last communication with air-traffic controllers before the crash indicated that he was climbing to 4,000 feet to get above the cloud cover; however, flight data from the NTSB indicated the helicopter was actually descending at the time while banking to the left, ultimately hitting the ground at a rate of about 4,000 feet per minute.
The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter operated by Island Express Helicopters was not equipped with terrain awareness technology when it slammed into the hillside, leaving no survivors.
NTSB officials have not yet declared the cause of the crash or stated if TAWS would have played a factor in the passengers’ survival. The NTSB has scheduled a Feb. 9 meeting to announce the results of its investigation.
Deetz, who now flies emergency medical service helicopters that are equipped with TAWS, said he believes the technology can be useful in certain circumstances but wouldn’t have made a difference in this case.
“I’m all for safety, but it doesn’t solve the human factor. We all make mistakes,” he said. “That thing (TAWS) would have been going off like mad anyway because he’d be going through the canyon… He (Zobayan) knew the area. He knew where he was. He knew where the mountains were.
“Would TAWS have helped him as he turned and plummeted? No, by then it was way too late — he wouldn’t have been listening to it (proximity alerts), he would have just been trying to survive.”
Although Deetz doesn’t believe the warning system would have helped Zobayan in that instance, he doesn’t see an issue with requiring helicopters carrying six passengers or more to be equipped with TAWS, even if he said he believes pressure from legislators to do so is a “knee-jerk” and “political” decision that doesn’t address what happened that day.
“Most of them (helicopters large enough to carry six or more passengers) do already have TAWS, so I mean, whatever, sure, why not?” he said. “But it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Accidents happen, and they still have EMS crashes on helicopters with TAWS. So does it eliminate it (accident risk)? No.”
Feinstein and Sherman said they’re determined to see the FAA follow the NTSB’s recommendation that all helicopters carrying six passengers or more be equipped with TAWS.
“The Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act will finally direct the FAA to require these safety features for passenger helicopters in order to avoid tragedies like the one that claimed the life of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others,” Sherman said.
The FAA does not comment on pending legislation, a spokesman told City News Service.
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