Would a Terrain Warning System Have Helped Prevent the Kobe Bryant Crash?
In 2004, a helicopter flying at night over the Gulf of Mexico plunged into the water, killing all 10 people on board. Had the aircraft been equipped with a system to warn the pilots of the impending impact, the crash could have been prevented, investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board determined.
The board urged federal regulators to require installation of the system on all helicopters. “It is well past time for the benefits from these standard safety devices to be made available to passengers on helicopter transports,” the board’s acting chairman said when announcing the recommendation in 2006.
Fourteen years later, use of the system is still voluntary. The helicopter that plowed into a fog-shrouded hillside near Calabasas, Calif., on Sunday, killing the retired basketball star Kobe Bryant and eight other people, was not outfitted with the system, known as a terrain awareness and warning system, or TAWS, said the N.T.S.B. board member Jennifer Homendy.
“Certainly, TAWS could have helped to provide information to the pilot on what terrain the pilot was flying in,” Ms. Homendy said at a news conference on Tuesday.
The agency’s investigator-in-charge, Bill English, cautioned that it was too early to know whether the lack of the warning system played any role in Sunday’s crash.
TAWS can help prevent crashes, especially when pilots have limited visibility, by providing a detailed image of surrounding terrain and triggering auditory and visual warnings. The systems are required on many fixed-wing aircraft.
In a 2014 rule, the Federal Aviation Administration required air ambulance helicopters to install TAWS, but the mandate did not apply to commercial flights, such as the ones Mr. Bryant frequently took around the Los Angeles area. After the rule was issued, the N.T.S.B. closed its recommendation but said it considered the F.A.A. response “unacceptable.”
Kurt Deetz, a pilot who said he flew Mr. Bryant during his previous job at Island Express Helicopters, which operated the helicopter involved in Sunday’s crash, told The New York Times that the helicopter did have a less advanced collision-avoidance system embedded in its GPS. He said he did not think that the system recommended by the N.T.S.B. would have helped prevent the crash.
The terrain avoidance warning system cannot prevent a crash on its own. In March 2016, all four people aboard an air ambulance died when it crashed into trees near Enterprise, Ala., about one minute after picking up a patient from a car crash. The helicopter had been equipped with a terrain avoidance warning system, the N.T.S.B. found, but a series of other failures — including pilot error, fog and mist — led to the crash.
Gregory A. Feith, a former senior air safety investigator for the N.T.S.B., said that terrain warning systems can be helpful tools for pilots, but that they can also produce so many warnings that pilots stop paying attention.
“With what the pilot was doing with Kobe Bryant, it would be beneficial, but when you’re following a highway with hills nearby, you get false warnings,” said Mr. Feith, describing the scenario of Sunday’s fatal flight. “And with false warnings, you tend to tune them out.”
But Mr. Feith said pilots would always benefit from having a terrain warning system.
“This is a tool, one of many, that the pilot has to keep themselves out of harm’s way,” he said.
Kipp Lau, an air safety consultant who has worked with companies providing for-hire flights, said he had often encountered skepticism when suggesting installation of the N.T.S.B.-recommended system. Despite the safety advantages, he said, companies tend “to view it as a cost not required by regulation.”
Mr. Lau said it was too early in the investigation to know whether the system could have helped avoid Sunday’s crash.
Ms. Homendy also raised on Tuesday a second longstanding board recommendation that “the F.A.A. has failed to act on.” After a 2005 crash, the N.T.S.B. recommended that all helicopters have a flight data recorder. Such a requirement, the board said, would not only help in determining causes of crashes but would also provide data that companies could use to proactively improve safety practices. As with the collision-warning system, the F.A.A. mandated use of recorders in a 2014 rule for air ambulances but left the devices optional for commercial flights.
The helicopter that crashed on Sunday with Mr. Bryant aboard, a Sikorsky S-76B, had neither a cockpit voice recorder nor a flight data recorder.
“That would have helped us significantly in this investigation and other investigations, and it’s something we’ve recommended several times over a number of years,” Ms. Homendy said.
Helicopters like the one in Sunday’s crash are governed by a set of F.A.A. regulations that the N.T.S.B. has criticized as inadequate. Last year, the board listed the need to reform the rules covering so-called Part 135 aircraft — a category covering many for-hire helicopter operations and some smaller airplanes — on its “Most Wanted List” of proposed safety enhancements.
“Regardless of the purpose of the flight or the type of aircraft, all flights should be safe — right now they may not be,” notes a board fact sheet on the recommendation.
An F.A.A. spokesperson declined to comment on Tuesday, and representatives for Island Express did not return voice mail messages.
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