Helicopter company in Kobe Bryant crash not licensed to fly in bad weather

Although pilot Ara Zobayan did have the proper federal certification to fly by IFR, or instrument flight rules, he would have been restricted to observe the licensing held by Island Express Helicopters.

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By Corky Siemaszko

The California company that owns the helicopter that crashed, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, was not licensed to fly choppers by cockpit instruments when visibility was bad, NBC News confirmed Friday.

Although pilot Ara Zobayan did have the proper federal certification to fly by IFR, or instrument flight rules, he would have been restricted to observe the licensing held by Island Express Helicopters.

“Speaking generally, a pilot has to observe any limitations on the company he or she works for, regardless of the pilot’s personal ratings,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement. “If a company is not authorized to conduct flights in bad-weather conditions, the pilot while flying for that company can only conduct flights in visual conditions.”

Meaning, such pilots can only fly if they can see where they are going.

“That said,” the FAA added. “A pilot has a lot of discretion in how to respond to an emergency situation.”

Asked whether the agency was suggesting there was some kind of emergency that prompted Zobayan to take off Sunday in foul weather, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said no.

“It means that if a pilot encounters an emergency in flight, the pilot has wide latitude on how to respond,” he said in an email.

Bryant, his teenage daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed when their chopper crashed in Calabasas, near Malibu. It was en route to Camarillo Airport in Ventura County, near Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy.

Zobayan, 49, was an experienced pilot with 8,200 hours of flying time, federal investigators have said.

Kurt Deetz, a former Island Express Helicopters chopper pilot who flew Bryant for two years, told NBC News that most of the helicopter companies in the area lack IFR certification in part because the weather is typically clear. He said pilots generally rely on their eyes or VFR, which means visual flight reference, to figure where they are and where they are going.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash and has already noted that the chopper lacked a safety system called TAWS, which stands for terrain awareness and warning system. It alerts a pilot when an aircraft gets too close to the ground.

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Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., over whose district the Sikorsky S-76B flew, called on the FAA on Thursday to make TAWS mandatory on all helicopters — not just ambulance and medical helicopters.

But experts interviewed by NBC News and other news outlets are divided over whether TAWS would have prevented this particular crash.

In the aftermath of the crash, Island Express Helicopters suspended all flights.

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