Helicopter Company Files Lawsuit Against Controllers In Bryant Crash

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Island Express Helicopters has filed a lawsuit alleging that two air traffic controllers are responsible for the crash of a company Sikorsky S-76B helicopter that killed retired NBA star Kobe Bryant and eight others last January. The cross-complaint asserts that the accident was caused by “a series of erroneous acts and/or omissions” committed by the controllers, including a “… failure to properly communicate termination of radar flight following … incomplete position relief briefing, and … lack of knowledge of current weather conditions.” It further claims that a controller contributed to the crash by “monopolizing the Pilot’s attention during the critical phase of the flight by making multiple radio calls, requiring transponder ident, and requesting the Pilot to state where he was and what his intentions were.”

Island Express’ lawsuit (PDF) was filed in the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles. The individuals listed in the filing are employed by the FAA as air traffic controllers at the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control Facility (TRACON). To date, four lawsuits related to the accident have been filed against Island Express, including one by Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, which alleges negligence by the pilot for flying in unsafe weather conditions.

As previously reported by AVweb, Island Express holds a Part 135 operating certificate for on-demand, VFR-only operations. A preliminary report (PDF) released by the NTSB last February stated that no evidence of mechanical failure had been found in the crash, which occurred on Jan. 26, 2020, in Calabasas, California. It further noted that visibility was poor in the area of the accident due to low clouds and mist. According to the report, the pilot had requested and received a special VFR clearance. The final NTSB accident report has not yet been issued.

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31 COMMENTS

  1. I took a look at the NTSB PDF, which has eye-witness photos (thanks to cell phones and nearby surveillance cameras) and terrain info. I can only imagine how fortunate the investigators felt after getting those.

    Two things stand out:

    1) Flying SVFR in mist below hilltops is very high risk, even in a helicopter. (The operator was VFR-only, though this was a large helicopter configured for 8 pax, originally 12-pax.) It’s a shame that it wasn’t an IFR flight. I think too many US EMS and charter helicopter operators are VFR, thus the high accident rate.

    2) It’s the duty of the operator to not submit pax to high-risk flights like that, since their expectation is just to pay the fare and make it to their destination. Probably SVFR in mist should not be allowed in that area, especially below hilltops.

  2. I totally agree with YARS.

    And now, in one hand, I’ll just take a drink of my latte, make a phone call with my other hand , and ooops!!!…keep on driving my SUV. Now, where’s my cigarettes? Was that a stop sign back there? I am so cool!

  3. This lawsuit is all about insurance company lawyers. The aviation company’s insurance is going to have to pay beaucoup monies to the passengers, so that insurance company is looking for any possible way to recoup money to minimize their losses. It’s known as subrogation in the insurance biz

  4. Let me get this straight, since this company’s flight director wasn’t courageous enough to question this pilot’s decision to fly themselves, they are suing the FAA for not asking this pilot over the radio, “Why are you flying VFR in these conditions today? Are you insane?” Perhaps they should sue the FAA for not pulling their own charter certificate, too.

  5. Anyone who flies around LA regularly knows about the marine layer and how it behaves. Things usually don’t get better as you approach the shoreline when it’s active. A VFR certificate — even in a helicopter — is not a license to scud run under those conditions. And if you scud run, you sure as heck wouldn’t do it in the area of foothills where this accident occurred. I’d venture to guess that most of us have scud run at one time or another but we knew where we were and where the hills, mountains or other impediments to safe flight were. This pilot was trying to fly a contact freeway approach, got in over his head and — instead of hollering “Uncle” and climbing — he continued. How does that 3 C’s mneumonic go … “Climb, confess and comply?”

    Not discussed but underlying the issues here is the fact that each and every time we get into an airplane with passengers, it is OUR responsibility as PIC to keep them safe … even when it ultimately boils down to saying, “No” … we can’t get there under these conditions. That’s the lesson I took away from this evolution.

    If lawyers want to convolute the clear facts of this accident, that’s an entirely different story. ATC didn’t tell the pilot to “turn left heading 180 and descend” so … that’s that. It’s just too bad — in my mind — that litigants aren’t held accountable for the full cost of frivolous lawsuits.

  6. Scud running in a multi-million dollar machine wanting to save a few bucks from an IFR certificattion. A PIC straps onto his/her responsibilities, and an operator delegates his/her responsibilities to the PIC. The passengers simply put their trust into those hands. The controllers offer a service that can (sometimes must) be declined.

  7. It’s just the lawyer dance. They will make a lot of dough off this. Could have been avoided if the pilot had some cajones and told his “VIPs” they might have to have someone drive them that morning.

      • You are both correct. In the fly for hire business at this level, lots of pushy customers and the resultant pushy bosses/company owners. “What do you mean we can’t go?” is the most common phrase heard usually followed immediately by”why am I paying you all this money?”. The time to settle this issue is the first time high dollar clients show up with their check books in hand. It takes a lot of courage for an owner or chief pilot to tell that client that there will be times that the aircraft won’t move for safety reasons. Selling that concept will likely be tough, sort of like trying to convince financial people that training and safety are important and cost effective concepts.

        • You bring up a good secondary salient point, David. Beyond PIC responsibilities, what was the Chief Pilot doing in this evolution? There should have been a system of checks and balances in the go / no-go decision making with weather like on the day of the accident. I can understand the ‘owner’ wanting to get the VIP to his desired destination but the Chief Pilot is the middle man. Seems to me that the VIP should have been told that there was a high likelihood that they would not be able to get him to his destination via air and that IF he chose to go, a RTB might be necessary. As soon as the chopper had to circle to get past KBUR, that should have happened.

  8. Although it’s total BS, it’s just standard legal maneuvering just to deflect as much blame as possible in the eyes of the jurors and hopefully reduce the judgement against the company and pilot by a few bucks. And, the complaint says part of the issue is the controllers to not properly terminate radar contact. Here’s the transcript. It clearly has, “Van Nuys tower will work you through. Radar service is terminated.” Pretty damn clear, and radar contact was never again established. His SVFR routing was to provided geographical separation while in the surface area. He followed visual routing around the north side while IFR traffic was launched south of him and sent southbound. Oh well.
    https://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/nba/kobe-bryant-helicopter-audio-released/ar-BBZmQ1V

  9. Apparently this company and their shyster lawyers think that it was harassment to actually dare ask where this guy was to find him on radar. I sure hope that the folks that utilize these type services out there (and anywhere) take a good hard luck at what they are laying their money out for. Is it the “convenience” or is it “convenience with appropriate levels of safety?”

  10. For those that are old enough to remember, the USAF T-39 ( Sabre 40 ) was a fun aircraft to fly and about as simple as it came. No frill what-so-ever, like effective anti-skid until almost at the end of it’s AF career. Was tasked as a young Captain to go from Ramstein AB to Frankfurt Rhine Main one horribly rainy day in the late 70’s to pick up an AF 3-star and 3 others and take them to Italy. In those days the 25s at EDAF were long and pure, ungrooved concrete. Rain was deluging but vis was okay at about a half mile. Well, did 3 unplanned touch and goes because after rolling forever without anti-skid or thrust reverse, couldn’t even remotely begin to slow down. Went back to EDAR, landed on the porous friction asphalt of the freshly redone 27 there and a helo went to get the General. He was mad when he got to EDAR and we started on to destination. He sniped at the two of us driving for the two hour flight. On the ramp in Italy, I was able to get him off to one side for a second and, because he was a pilot also. asked him what his real issue was? I asked if he had ever flown the Sabre and he said “no”. I asked if he understood all that had happened before the helo came to get him. Again, “no”. So I laid the tale out and then asked him if a crumpled pile of aluminum off the end of of the runway at EDAF was worth it. Again he said, “No”. A month later the squadron got a nice letter from him thanking us for running him around along with a personal note to the other pilot and I apologizing for his attitude. I can only assume that his good sense as a pilot finally kicked in.
    Unfortunately, way too many civilian executives are not aviators at all and will not tolerate any level of what they consider inconvenience. That said, crashes like the one referenced in this article will continue in the future. As aviators, we can only pray they are few and far between.

  11. For those that are old enough to remember, the USAF T-39 ( Sabre 40 ) was a fun aircraft to fly and about as simple as it came. No frills what-so-ever, like effective anti-skid until almost at the end of it’s AF career. Was tasked as a young Captain to go from Ramstein AB to Frankfurt Rhine Main one horribly rainy day in the late 70’s to pick up an AF 3-star and 3 others and take them to Italy. In those days the 25s at EDAF were long and pure, ungrooved concrete. Rain was deluging but vis was okay at about a half mile. Well, did 3 unplanned touch and goes because after rolling forever without anti-skid or thrust reverse, couldn’t even remotely begin to slow down. Went back to EDAR, landed on the porous friction asphalt of the freshly redone 27 there and a helo went to get the General. He was mad when he got to EDAR and we started on to destination. He sniped at the two of us driving for the two hour flight. On the ramp in Italy, I was able to get him off to one side for a second and, because he was a pilot also, asked him what his real issue was? I asked if he had ever flown the Sabre and he said “no”. I asked if he understood all that had happened before the helo came to get him. Again, “no”. So I laid the tale out and then asked him if a crumpled pile of aluminum off the end of of the runway at EDAF was worth it. Again he said, “No”. A month later the squadron got a nice letter from him thanking us for running him around along with a personal note to the other pilot and I apologizing for his attitude. I can only assume that his good sense as a pilot finally kicked in.
    Unfortunately, way too many civilian executives are not aviators at all and will not tolerate any level of what they consider inconvenience. That said, crashes like the one referenced in this article will continue in the future. As aviators, we can only pray they are few and far between.

  12. The sad part is, had he a little more local knowledge he could’ve stayed North and followed the 118 through the Santa Susana Pass, through Simi Valley then South over the 23 to his destination. That route always has better visibility, has actual valleys and has more room to “bail out” if the clouds close in. Just tragic.

    • How about taking his/her business a bit more seriously and get a IFR licensed 135 operation… I wonder how aware the customers/pax were of the fact that for their big bucks (and safety) an operator gets them to heir destination by scud-running.

  13. 140 knots low to the ground in poor visibility following a road in basically a canyon what could go wrong? in my opinion once he committed to the flight and found himself getting in trouble he had two options:

    1) Slow down and proceed at 20 knots, once it got to bad just take adventegous of the helicopter and just land.
    2) Declare an emergency and climb, take your hits later on.

    The best decision would have been to not go in the first place.