The skies above Los Angeles are crisscrossed by helicopters — sometimes as many as two dozen at a time — whisking the rich across the city, taking tourists to get the perfect Instagram photo, chasing criminals, and providing radio listeners with traffic updates on the car-clogged roads.
The convenience of helicopter travel appealed to basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, who told an interviewer in 2018 it let him be an involved parent while keeping to his NBA training schedule.
“I was sitting in traffic, and I wound up missing a school play because I was sitting in traffic,” Bryant said. “This thing just kept mounting, and I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft.”
But the busy airspace can be intimidating, even in the best conditions.
“If you learned to fly in Nowhere, Arkansas, and you came here, you’d be blown away,” said Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Bryant and a 30-year veteran of the industry.
Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were killed last month when their Sikorsky S-76B helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, Calif., in foggy conditions. The crash, which is under investigation, has renewed questions about helicopter safety and the refusal of the Federal Aviation Administration and the industry to adopt several recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board.
No cause has been determined for the crash, but the NTSB issued an update on its investigation Friday, detailing a witness account of the crash and saying the helicopter’s engine appeared to be running up until the impact.
The Jan. 26 crash was just the most high profile of several recent deadly incidents involving helicopters. In December, a tour flight crashed in Hawaii in bad weather, killing seven people. In June, a helicopter hit a skyscraper in New York, bursting into flames and killing the pilot. In all, 51 people were killed in helicopter crashes last year, according to the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, a joint industry and government group.
Incidents involving helicopters killed at least 428 people between 2009 and 2018, according to data compiled by the NTSB for The Washington Post.
David Hoeppner, a retired engineering professor at the University of Utah with expertise in helicopter design, said he hopes the attention on the Bryant crash will lead to renewed efforts to improve helicopter safety.
“We haven’t done all the things in design and the reliability or integrity of the helicopter that we need to do,” said Hoeppner, who was an FAA consultant for more than 14 years.
“The industry has a big say in how fast rules can be implemented,” he said. “The system is driven by money and greed, and so that tends to take preference even over safety.”
The same criticism was made of airplane safety following two deadly crashes involving Boeing’s 737 Max jet, with lawmakers and victims’ families saying the FAA showed too much deference to Boeing as it reviewed the plane’s design and safety. The Max crashes, which happened in Ethiopia and Indonesia, killed a total of 346 people. The plane has been grounded since March.
In a statement, the FAA said it “considers the positions of all aviation stakeholders when analyzing safety issues.”
“Receiving input from the various public sources allows the FAA to make the most informed safety decisions,” the agency said.
In 2014, federal authorities finished rewriting rules for commercial helicopter flights, focusing on air ambulances. But the FAA stopped short of several provisions sought either by the NTSB or some in the industry, including requirements for night vision goggles and regular checks of pilots’ ability to deal with unexpected bad weather.
Lynn Lunsford, an FAA spokesman, said the stricter rules for air ambulances reflect that they often operate in remote areas at night, while tours and shuttle flights work in populated areas with better infrastructure. Lunsford said safety improvements do not only stem from new rules — noting for example that the FAA promotes voluntary use of flight data recorders, also known as “black boxes,” even when rules do not require them — and that the fatal helicopter crash rate has been halved in 20 years.
The weather on the day of the Bryant crash has attracted particular attention.
His pilot, 50-year-old Ara Zobayan, left John Wayne Airport in Orange County, shortly after 9 a.m. that Sunday with eight passengers en route to a youth basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks, about 65 miles away, across Los Angeles.
Zobayan had spent a decade working for Island Express Helicopters, which provides both tours and transportation, amassing 8,200 hours of flying time and regularly acting as Bryant’s pilot. Former colleagues have described him as cautious and professional.
The day of the crash, Zobayan encountered bad weather, and he received permission to pass through controlled airspace near the Burbank and Van Nuys airports in worse-than-normal visibility. Shortly after he picked up a helicopter route that follows Highway 101, Zobayan climbed to 2,300 feet and started to turn left, before for unknown reasons diving at high speed into a hillside in Calabasas. NTSB investigators said the helicopter hit the hillside at an elevation of 1,085 feet — missing clearance by 20 to 30 feet. But even if he had cleared that hill, he would have immediately faced more in his path.
The Los Angeles County medical examiner said everyone on board was killed by the force of the impact.
Zobayan was certified to fly with instruments, which can be used in especially bad weather. But Deetz and an NTSB spokesman said Island Express’s authorization from the FAA did not permit flights using instruments.
Jeff Guzzetti, a former NTSB and FAA crash investigator, said to obtain such authorization, an operator has to demonstrate to government inspectors that its pilots’ training and aircraft equipment are up to date, which can be costly.
In an emergency, a pilot flying for a company with approval only to fly by sight could still make the switch to instruments, but experts say the transition is difficult, especially for pilots who are out of practice, and doing so would probably prompt questions from safety inspectors.
“That’s what pilots should do, but in the heat of the moment, sometimes you try to stay outside of the clouds,” Guzzetti said.
The NTSB has called attention to such difficulties in its investigations of past crashes.
After a 1986 crash, the Maryland State Police placed renewed emphasis on training its helicopter pilots to be proficient in the use of instruments. But in 2007, the requirements were changed in a way that amounted to a downgrade, some pilots told NTSB investigators. Within 10 months, the police had another fatal incident when a state medical helicopter crashed, killing four.
In job ads, Island Express has sought pilots with instrument flight ratings. In its investigation update Friday, the NTSB said Zobayan had last had a training review in May 2019 and received satisfactory grades for his handling of inadvertently flying into poor visibility.
The company suspended its operations the week of the crash and has referred all questions to the NTSB.
The helicopter also lacked a black box recorder, something it was not required to have but another piece of key safety technology the NTSB has been urging federal aviation authorities to require for more than a decade.
The board and outside groups have also pushed for systems designed to prevent fuel tanks from exploding in a crash.
NTSB crash data suggests that helicopters are more dangerous than U.S. aviation overall, but much of the gap is explained by the extraordinary safety record of the airline industry, experts say. Crash rates are similar for helicopters and the generally smaller airplanes operating under different rules than the stringent standards imposed on commercial airlines — a comparison experts say is fairer.
Between 2009 and 2018, more than 3,700 people were killed in airplane crashes involving those kinds of operations, according to the NTSB data.
And Hassan Shahidi, chief executive of the Flight Safety Foundation, said gains in helicopter safety in recent decades have been remarkable.
“Is there room for more improvement?” he said. “Of course.”
There are more than 10,000 helicopters active in the United States, about half of the world’s civilian fleet. That number has grown rapidly in the past two decades, experts say, as helicopters are used more by hospitals, news organizations and law enforcement. Having one or two air ambulances is effectively a requirement for major hospitals. The Los Angeles Police Department has 17 helicopters.
Tour flights have also grown in popularity. In Hawaii, companies make thousands of flyovers of the Big Island. In Las Vegas, companies compete to take tourists on sunset flights over the Strip and day trips to the Grand Canyon. Los Angeles and New York have some of the busiest airspaces, including millionaires turning to the skies on helicopters to avoid traffic, while Uber is experimenting with on-demand helicopter service for those with not-so-deep pockets.
In Los Angeles, helicopters mingle in the sky with airliners arriving at Los Angeles International Airport and planes using other airports in the area. Chuck Street, director of the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Operators Association, recalled an air traffic controller calling the sky there the “most complex and busiest airspace on the planet.”
Experts say design and technological changes could improve helicopter safety.
Had Bryant’s helicopter had a terrain avoidance warning system, for example, an alarm would have sounded as the Sikorsky S-76B approached the ground, potentially giving the pilot time to pull up. Black boxes could help investigators reach conclusions about why the helicopter went down.
The FAA required the terrain warning systems and a kind of data recorder on air ambulances in the 2014 rules but not on all other kinds of helicopters. The agency said it is difficult to make the economic case for requiring the recorders because they do not prevent crashes. And the industry has largely resisted the recommendation for warning systems, saying that the technology is mostly unproven and can be distracting to pilots.
In comments submitted to the FAA in response to one proposal, some criticized the warning systems as a “distraction in the cockpit” that “doesn’t give the pilot the ability to see/avoid bad weather.” Cost was also an issue. The systems can run $35,000, with operators losing additional revenue during the installation process.
Gary C. Robb, a Missouri-based aviation attorney who has handled crash cases for 36 years, said regulators have been too willing to give the industry a pass.
“The operators scream and yell and say, ‘I’ll be out of business if you require us to do that. And the FAA relents and says, ‘Oh, okay, we don’t have to do it then,’ ” Robb said
In 2018, Robb’s firm represented a flight nurse who survived a helicopter ambulance crash only to receive horrific burns in the fire that followed. He reached a $100 million settlement with the maker and operator of the aircraft.
The FAA has required helicopters with designs certified after 1994 to have crash-resistant fuel systems, and in April, a law is set to go into effect expanding the requirements to newly manufactured helicopters. But today, only about 15 percent of helicopters have fuel-tank protection.
“Eight-thousand five-hundred helicopters are literally firebombs waiting to explode on a less than perfect landing,” Robb said.