The National Transportation Safety Board has released images of the wreckage of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others. Picture: James Anderson/National Transportation Safety Board/AP
The National Transportation Safety Board has released images of the wreckage of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others. Picture: James Anderson/National Transportation Safety Board/AP

Helicopter in Kobe crash not certified for fog

THE company that owned the helicopter on which Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others were killed on Monday (AEST) was not certified to fly passengers under instrument flight rules, though it was equipped to do so and the pilot was IFR-rated, according to reports.

IFR are often used during inclement weather.

Pilot  Ara Zobayan was licensed to fly using instruments alone, but the operating certificate by the Federal Aviation Administration limited Island Express Helicopters' pilots to fly only under visual flight rules, or VFR, the New York Times reported, citing three sources familiar with the firm's operations.

On Thursday local time, the company announced it would suspend all regular and charter services.

The late pilot had received what's known as "special visual flight rules," or SVFR, to fly in foggy conditions in the minutes before the Sikorsky S-76B slammed into a suburban Los Angeles hillside, killing all aboard.

Under VFR, pilots must have at least three miles of visibility and a cloud ceiling of no less than 1000 feet (300m) above the ground.

Investigators work at the scene of the helicopter crash.
Investigators work at the scene of the helicopter crash.

Though the chopper carried IFR-approved instruments, the company did not have certification for their use and Zobayan, who was properly rated, likely had little real-world IFR experience, Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for the company who flew Bryant for two years, told Forbes.

The last radio communication from Zobayan was that he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer.

"I don't think he had any actual (experience) inside the clouds," said Deetz, who noted that it could be unnerving for pilots limited to operating under VFR.

"You spend your whole career thinking, 'I shouldn't do this.'"

The FAA's limitations on Island Express' operations are not unusual, according to the Times.

Another operator at Van Nuys Airport, where the company is based, told the Times that none of the local charter companies have sought to gain IFR certification, partly because it is usually simple to navigate at low altitude in Southern California.

"It's not worth it, we don't fly in that kind of weather anyway And most of the time the weather is good," Claudia Lowry, the owner of Group 3 Aviation, told the paper, adding that even police choppers in the region did not have it.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine the wreckage.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine the wreckage.

Information about Island Express' certification shed light on why Zobayan did not file an instrument flight plan that would have allowed him to climb well above the fogbound hills and fly to Camarillo Airport, not far from the basketball tourney where Bryant and the others were headed.

"There is only one way you can be in the clouds, on an IFR flight plan or by accident," Deetz told the Times, adding that the weather on the fateful day was not perfect, but "not enough to say no to a flight."

Island Express did not respond to questions from the newspaper about its certification. Forbes reported that it reached a company rep who declined to comment. Efforts to reach the company on Friday (local time) were unsuccessful.

 

The company has released a statement saying: "We are deeply saddened by this tragedy. Our top priority is providing assistance to the families of the passengers and the pilot. We hope that you will respect their privacy at this extremely difficult time.

"The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was our chief pilot. Ara has been with the company for over 10 years and has over 8000 flight hours.

"We are working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the cause of the accident and we are grateful to the first responders and local authorities for their response to this unimaginable accident."

This article originally appeared on the NY Post and was reproduced with permission.


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