Kobe Bryant’s Helicopter Was Not Legally Allowed to Fly in Fog Solely Using Instruments

Kobe Bryant
Getty Images/David McNew

The company that NBA star Kobe Bryant chartered for his last fatal flight, was not rated to fly in weather conditions that require instrument flying, according to a report.

Island Express Helicopters, owner of the Sikorsky S-76B that went down killing the former L.A. Laker, his daughter, and seven others, was only certified to operate under visual flight rules. Which means their pilots are only supposed to fly during good visual conditions, the Daily Mail reported.

As previous reports indicated, Bryant’s pilot, Ara Zobayan, was rated to fly in inclement weather using only instruments. But the company he was working for was not licensed to do so. It appears unlikely the helicopter was equipped to fly using only the instruments for guidance.

Island Express also announced that it is grounding its fleet while the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates.

“The shock of the accident affected all staff, and management decided that the service would be suspended until such time as it was deemed appropriate for staff and customers,” the company said in a statement.

According to reports, Bryant’s pilot was climbing out of the clouds on January 26 when the helicopter went into a 1,200-foot spin and crashed into a hillside outside Calabasas, California.

Air traffic controllers reportedly gave Zobayan special visual flight rules (SVFR) to pilot the craft that morning.

“He was told to follow a freeway and stay at or below 2,500 feet. Under a SVFR clearance, pilots are allowed to fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for visual flight rules (VFR). Special VFR clearances are only issued when cloud ceilings are below 1,000 feet above ground level,” the Mail added.

It seems evident that Zobayan, who had been an employee of Island Express for ten years and was an experienced pilot, was not flying by instrument during the fatal flight.

Zobayan’s last communication with air traffic was when he asked for permission to proceed in the fog and then radioed that he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer.

No determination on the cause or fault of the accident has yet been made.

Island Express is not unusual for not requiring pilots to be certified to fly by instrument. Few of the charter companies in the region bother with such requirements because it costs more for training and insurance.

Sikorsky, the manufacturer of the helicopter, is contacting customers and urging them to install a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) device. Some reports say that the device was not installed on the helicopter Zobayan was flying last Sunday.

The TAWS is required to be installed on medical helicopters, but not commercial ones.

The NTSB began recommending the device after a flight carrying workers to an offshore drilling ship crashed in the Gulf of Mexico in 2004, killing all ten aboard.

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