The dark story of the helicopter crash that took the lives of NBA icon Kobe Bryant and eight other people could have a brighter ending by prompting safety changes that save lives in the future, some experts say.
The plush, high-tech Sikorsky S-76B that slammed into a Southern California mountainside Sunday was not equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system, TAWS, or data and voice black boxes, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
NTSB investigator Jennifer Homendy said this week that it’s too soon to determine whether TAWS would have altered the tragic outcome. But she also said that 15 years ago, the NTSB recommended the system be mandatory on helicopters seating six passengers or more.
The FAA declined to require the equipment, Homendy said. A similar NTSB recommendation for voice and data recorders also was rejected. The attention drawn by Bryant’s death has shone a spotlight on those safety issues.
“It is certainly possible for NTSB to reiterate previous recommendations,” NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said in an email to USA TODAY.
The FAA, in an email to USA TODAY, said TAWS and data recorders are required in helicopter ambulances that often fly at night and require unfamiliar landing areas.
“By contrast, on-demand operations tend to occur in populated areas, relying on a robust network of routes and landing facilities,” the email said, adding that other safety improvements have helped cut the helicopter fatal accident rate in half over the last two decades.
Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director, says TAWS could be a lifesaver. And he thinks it is “inexcusable” that TAWS and black boxes are not required The standard arguments, he said, were always that they are expensive and, at least for the black boxes, they add weight to the aircraft. But he said modern technology has made the equipment lighter and less bulky.
“These things come down to a cost-benefit analysis,” Goelz said. “Because of the rarity of accidents, that doesn’t work out. But cost-benefit should not apply to safety. Safety should always trump.”
Goelz said he believes Homendy discussed the recommendations at news conferences this week because the NTSB will likely make them again.
“It is not by happenstance that she raised these issues, I think this has been discussed at the highest level,” he said. “They were valid then (when they were first recommended) and they are valid now.”
TAWS can help pilots avoid crashes during flight. Black boxes can also save lives, Goelz said. Additional information obtained from recorders after crashes can lead to safer flights and safer helicopters, he said.
Goelz said helicopter businesses also can benefit from the boxes, using them to monitor flights and provide valuable data.
Bryant’s flight was supposed to be pretty simple: 90 miles from Orange to Ventura counties skipping over Los Angeles and its snarled freeways. There was some fog, and the pilot was granted permission to fly at less than what is considered minimum visibility – three miles with a ceiling of 1,000 feet.
Minutes later, the helicopter rose to 2,300 feet then began a rapid, left descending turn. The helicopter missed clearing the hill by less than 30 feet, but the impact was so great that it left a crater and spewed wreckage across a 200-yard swath of parched brush.
Holloway said investigators have wrapped up their on-site investigation. The wreckage is being moved to an undisclosed, secure facility, he said.
A preliminary report is expected sometime next week, but it won’t include a likely cause of the crash, Homendy said. A final report could be a year to 18 months away, she said.
Goelz is not involved in the investigation. Thus far, he says, the crash appears comparable to the occasional air tour accidents that require NTSB probes. But the tragic death of a global celebrity can make a difference, he said.
“In high profile accidents, you might provide a disproportionate amount of assets to the investigation,” he said. “But they also draw attention to safety, and that can be beneficial.”