Charter Company In Bryant Crash Operated VFR-Only

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Island Express, the aircraft charter company that owned the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter that impacted a hillside in Calabasas, California, on Sunday killing all nine people onboard including retired NBA star Kobe Bryant, is a VFR-only operation, according to information from the NTSB and a former company employee. As previously reported by AVweb, the Part 135 flight had received a Special VFR clearance with weather at the time of the crash reported as 2.5 miles visibility in fog and ceilings of 1,100 feet.

The pilot, identified as Island Express chief pilot Ara Zobayan, had more than 8,200 hours total time with 1,250 hours on the S-76. Zobayan was instrument rated and had been with the company for over 10 years. It has been reported that Island Express has temporarily suspended operations in the wake of the accident.

According to the NTSB, the helicopter was not equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) and impacted terrain 20-30 feet below top of a hill. The Board stated that the helicopter was in a left bank with a descent rate of over 2000 feet per minute prior to impact. The aircraft maintenance records, registration, airworthiness certificate, weight and balance sheets and company operating manual were recovered from the wreckage along with an unidentified iPad and cellphone. The aircraft did not have a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder.

The FAA established a TFR over the crash site on Wednesday to “provide a safe environment for accident investigation.” The TFR is in effect until Feb. 4.

Video: NTSB

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47 COMMENTS

    • 135.203 VFR: Minimum altitudes.
      Except when necessary for takeoff and landing, no person may operate under VFR—

      (a) An airplane—

      (1) During the day, below 500 feet above the surface or less than 500 feet horizontally from any obstacle; or

      (2) At night, at an altitude less than 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal distance of 5 miles from the course intended to be flown or, in designated mountainous terrain, less than 2,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal distance of 5 miles from the course intended to be flown; or

      (b) A helicopter over a congested area at an altitude less than 300 feet above the surface.

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      §135.205 VFR: Visibility requirements.
      (a) No person may operate an airplane under VFR in uncontrolled airspace when the ceiling is less than 1,000 feet unless flight visibility is at least 2 miles.

      (b) No person may operate a helicopter under VFR in Class G airspace at an altitude of 1,200 feet or less above the surface or within the lateral boundaries of the surface areas of Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E airspace designated for an airport unless the visibility is at least—

      (1) During the day— 1⁄2 mile; or

      (2) At night—1 mile.

      [Doc. No. 16097, 43 FR 46783, Oct. 10, 1978, as amended by Amdt. 135-41, 56 FR 65663, Dec. 17, 1991]

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      §135.207 VFR: Helicopter surface reference requirements.
      No person may operate a helicopter under VFR unless that person has visual surface reference or, at night, visual surface light reference, sufficient to safely control the helicopter.

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    • VFR only is fine as long as it is VFR. It does not take long for things to go terribly wrong when all of a sudden you can’t see. I am surprised that the helicopter was not an IFR equipped machine. Kobe seemed safety conscious be likely did not know or understand the dangers of VFR into IMC.

  1. Yes 2000 fpm is bothersome. Jennifer Homendy in her press conference described it as a “dive”. In my humble opinion questions about the crash site being “only” 20 to 30 feet below one particular summit surrounded by other hills took an inordinate amount of press conference time, as if 20 to 30 feet higher would have prevented the accident.

    • I hear. What you are saying, but for me a non helicopter rated pilot it looks like 135 has lower minimums for Helicopter. Read .205

      135.203 VFR: Minimum altitudes.
      Except when necessary for takeoff and landing, no person may operate under VFR—

      (a) An airplane—

      (1) During the day, below 500 feet above the surface or less than 500 feet horizontally from any obstacle; or

      (2) At night, at an altitude less than 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal distance of 5 miles from the course intended to be flown or, in designated mountainous terrain, less than 2,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal distance of 5 miles from the course intended to be flown; or

      (b) A helicopter over a congested area at an altitude less than 300 feet above the surface.

      return arrow Back to Top

      §135.205 VFR: Visibility requirements.
      (a) No person may operate an airplane under VFR in uncontrolled airspace when the ceiling is less than 1,000 feet unless flight visibility is at least 2 miles.

      (b) No person may operate a helicopter under VFR in Class G airspace at an altitude of 1,200 feet or less above the surface or within the lateral boundaries of the surface areas of Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E airspace designated for an airport unless the visibility is at least—

      (1) During the day— 1⁄2 mile; or

      (2) At night—1 mile.

      [Doc. No. 16097, 43 FR 46783, Oct. 10, 1978, as amended by Amdt. 135-41, 56 FR 65663, Dec. 17, 1991]

      return arrow Back to Top

      §135.207 VFR: Helicopter surface reference requirements.
      No person may operate a helicopter under VFR unless that person has visual surface reference or, at night, visual surface light reference, sufficient to safely control the helicopter.

      return arrow Back to Top

      • “§135.207 VFR: Helicopter surface reference requirements.
        No person may operate a helicopter under VFR unless that person has visual surface reference”

        Eye witnesses, looking up, did not see the helicopter because of the fog.
        If the surface an not see the helicopter, the helicopter does not have a visual reference to the surface. They cheated and they died. Don’t do what they did.

    • More of a cost effectiveness thing. Less aircraft maintenance, less training required and no instrument comp check every 6 months. Hard to stay current IFR flying a helicopter. Majority 135 helicopter operators are VFR only.

    • IFR also has $$$ benefits: less weather dependence means more flying and a more dependable service means more customers. If the costs associated with IFR outweigh those benefits, maybe we should be looking at the FAA imposed costs of IFR to see if they are actually necessary. Because if they are preventing 135 heli operators from getting IFR capable then they just might be making helicopter aviation less safe overall.

  2. Writing as someone in the UK (incidentally a helicopter pilot) I just want to say how impressive it is that the NTSB (an organisation of world renown) conducts these open briefings and is so transparent in its investigations and findings – for example, in providing access to the evidence after it has reached a conclusion. Americans must be proud of this organisation. I wish our own (otherwise admirable) AAIB operated this way.

  3. So because the ops manual was VFR only, the Chief Pilot / PIC couldn’t come to the conclusion that he had gotten himself in over his head, hollered “Uncle” and climbed up to find VFR conditions or make a safe landing when able? Instead, he pressed on. I am reasonably certain that helicopter had instruments capable of getting him to VFR conditions and answering for it later. And if, perchance, it didn’t … then the machine should never have left the ground on a day like that encountered. Beyond that, I’d say that the PIC should have taken a copilot/observer with him under the condition of weather and high vis customer. He was SO focused on finding the Ventura freeway that he forgot everything else. A second set of eyes might have made a difference? Confess, climb, conserve, communicate and comply.

    If there’s one takeaway for me — personally — here … I will take command of any situation that gets out of hand and not be afraid to exercise my right to FAR 91.3 .

  4. The flight was NOT on a SVFR clearance at the time of the crash. SVFR terminated when he departed the KVNY Class D surface area and then turned south to pick up the 101 Freeway. The crash site is quite a distance from where SVFR was terminated.

    • If the rotor RPM is already low or decaying, it’s certainly possible. My own guess as to what happened is that the pilot got disoriented, and helicopters have a way of getting in to unrecoverable attitudes pretty quickly when the pilot is disoriented. It’s possible during that disorientation that the pilot allowed the helicopter to get in to a low rotor RPM situation, though without firsthand knowledge of an S-76, I can’t say for sure if that’s what caused the descent or if it was simply a matter of not knowing which way was up.

  5. “the helicopter was in a left bank with a descent rate of over 2000 feet per minute prior to impact?”
    My first question is, how did the NTSB determine the descent rate or the left bank? There was no on-board equipment nor ground-radar contact.

    It sounds like he flew into a hillside that sloped away at an angle at about 2,000 ft/min, which is about 22 mph. Sounds about the right speed if the pilot was trying to find the entrance to the canyon.

    I agree with Larry S., get out of trouble first, then deal with the legal stuff. Alive.

    • Examination of wreckage (exactly how the metal bent upon impact) can reveal the general attitude and velocity of the craft at impact. There is good known science for that, and the NTSB happens to excel at using that science.

      In a nutshell, if everything is bent toward the left side, then you know the thing hit left side first. If a five inch section of sheet metal is crushed to one inch then the velocity/force required/applied to do that is known. There’s way more to it than that, but you get the idea.

    • ADS-B data show altitude, flight direction & velocity. They have surmised a left-banked dive from these.
      In my opinion, given the descent rate immediately after a zoom climb, the dive was not CFIT, but rather a loss of control due to disorientation, from continuing VFR into IMC. He told ATC he was climbing to get out of the cloud layer and was never heard from again.

  6. Can complacency creep into pilot persona as time builds on one aircraft? Sadly, this crash was avoidable.

    Bob G, I believe the NTSB may be one of the few entities serving the aviation industry free of politics and business interests to develop into a world renowned authority from freedom to invite all professionals into the unique party system without recriminations. I found more than casual interest when researching type aircraft related to my student flying days to appreciate the history and breadth of pilot, weather and extenuating circumstances told in each final report. Unfortunately, other nations don’t seem to regard their own air accident investigative board with respect, due to outside influences that disagrees with political or business agendas. Perhaps the NTSB is as close to a true agency able to determine and report with clarity factual evidence to develop a picture of how and why each a/c becomes another unfortunate statistic while providing invaluable info useful in avoiding a similar occurrence.

  7. Though the aircraft was IFR equipped, and the pilot was IFR certified, I wonder if the pilot was IFR current in that helicopter since the company operated as VFR only. As a VFR only company, they may not have given the pilot the opportunity to maintain his IFR currency or even his annual IPC. Inadvertent IMC is evaluated each year on the Flight Review. I can foresee Garmin noticing this and developing (if not already) a helicopter specific ‘Inadvertent IMC’ button just for these instances. Similar to their recent ‘Auto Land’ products.

  8. Its time the FAA rethinks helicopter minimums. They should be no less than those required for fixed wing aircraft. In my 24,000 hours of flying the only hazardous situations I have encountered are having to do with helicopters nearly colliding with me when operating in low visibility near an airport. Helicopters operating in low visibility are a danger to IFR aircraft and people on the ground.

    • Even if the minimums were raised, that doesn’t stop airplane pilots from scud running and flying VFR into IMC. And basic Class G VFR minimums for fixed-wing aircraft is low enough that they too could cause a danger to IFR aircraft and people on the ground, so should those minimums be raised too?

      I can’t say for certain why helicopter VFR minimums are lower than fixed-wing, but my guess is that it has something to do with the fact that helicopters can safely set down (and depart) almost any area that’s reasonably larger than the helicopter itself. All this pilot had to do was to find about a 100’x100′ area to set down, or turn back to the airport he just passed, and there wouldn’t have been an accident. His clients would have been inconvenienced, but they would be alive too.

  9. The news media is having a feeding frenzy with this unfortunate event. The reality of it is a very competent and experienced pilot flying an extremely reliable aircraft legally in weather that was well within the regulations and experience level of the pilot, in the last couple minutes of the flight apparently made a mistake that ended tragically. The weather was reported at 1100 overcast and 2 1/2 miles, barely under Basic vfr for controlled airspace and well above the 1 mile (lower for Helicopters) clear of clouds in svfr or uncontrolled airspace below 700 agl, which at 1500 MSL he would have been. The ADSB readout shows somewhere in the last few minutes the altitude was as low as 1200 ft. The terrain in that area thru the pass on either side ranges up to 1400 +- feet. The question seems to be what was the weather thru the pass. I agree with the comment someone on here made that it is time to reassess the vfr minimums for 135 operations, even in helicopters. 1 mile visibility in that airspace is not much. As the media attacks the pilot, the controllers, the system all for ratings, due to a celebrity being involved, who if he had not been on board the accident would be forgotten news by now, the industry has to deal with how to prevent this from happening to others.

  10. We all know what happened here; we can and should learn from this sad situation. Doesn’t matter if it was LOC or CFIT. It was the end result of get there itis which had many earlier facets. It was the quintessential series of wrong decisions that came together to result in a tragic ending. All WE here — collectively — can do is to promise ourselves to redouble our efforts to be careful as a result. Sometimes, a hard hit in the head serves to remind us that we ain’t 10′ tall and bullet proof. As a PIC, think twice … act once. Maybe run the situation through a second pilot if it’s dicey. Don’t let external pressures drive you to do something stupid. Have your backup plan in place too. Take command of a bad situation and make it right early. Sometimes, saying “No” is the right decision. It’s OK if you can’t complete your mission. Not much else can be said. As the saying goes, flying is pretty safe but is terribly intolerant of mistakes.