Kobe Bryant's helicopter lacked a crucial crash warning system — but even that may not have saved him

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA Classic/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant poses in front of a branded helicopter he took to his last game at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles before retiring in April of 2016. The helicopter is a different model to the Sikorsky S-76 which crashed near Los Angeles with Bryant on board.
  • A helicopter carrying NBA legend Kobe Bryant wasn’t equipped with a warning system that would tell the pilot if he was flying too close to land.
  • But even if the chopper had it, that may not have prevented its fatal crash, experts told The Associated Press.
  • Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on Sunday.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The Sikorsky S-76A helicopter that was carrying NBA legend Kobe Bryant wasn’t equipped with a crash warning system that is meant to tell a pilot if they are flying too low and could hit something.

But federal regulators are unsure whether the device, known as a Terrain Awareness Warning System (TAWS), would have helped the pilot make it through the foggy weather on the day of the crash, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

While using a TAWS is not required for commercial helicopters, it has long been recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and is compulsory for medical helicopters.

The device sets off alarms in the cockpit if the pilot is flying to close to a building or hillside.

Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other passengers, including the pilot, were killed when the Sikorsky S-76A crashed in Calabasas, California, on Sunday.

TAWS critics say it is prone to distracting false alarms

Although the TAWS equipment can warn pilots avoid crash situations, the Federal Aviation Administration has acknowledged that it comes with the pitfall of occasional off false alarms that can be distracting, according to the AP report.

“Another warning system screaming at you isn’t going to help,” Brian Alexander, a helicopter pilot and aviation lawyer, told the AP. “You don’t want to inundate the pilot.”

Mike Sagely, a former military pilot based in LA, told the AP he does use the system, but the frequency of the warnings could desensitize pilots from taking them seriously.

“People, they get complacent with it because they hear it all the time,” Sagely told AP. “They get so used to hearing it that when they do hear it, and they might even be in a dangerous profile, they may not react to it.”

Kobe Bryant CrashDanny Moloshok/ReutersOfficials at the helicopter crash site of NBA star Kobe Bryant in Calabasas, California, on January 27, 2020.

However, former NTSB managing director Peter Goelz told AP that the “nuisance” is worth the safety.

“From a safety perspective, you want all the safety enhancements that are available,” he said. “The trade-off is worth it.”

Too early to know if TAWS was relevant

Bill English of the NTSB’s Major Investigations Division told AP that it is still not clear whether the TAWS – or the lack thereof – contributed to the crash.

The NTSB said it could release a preliminary report as soon as this weekend. But it could take as long as 18 months to produce a definitive cause for the crash as investigations continue,The Washington Post reported.

Its pilot, Ara Zobayan, was trying to fly the helicopter out of the fog when it suddenly banked left, setting off a quick and steep descent from 1,200 feet, the AP reported.

The downed chopper hit a shrouded hillside near Calabasas, killing everyone on board and scattering debris over several hundred feet. Investigators said the chopper missed clearing the hilltop by only 20 to 30 feet.

“This is a pretty steep descent at high speed,” NTSB member Jennifer Homendy told AP. “We know that this was a high-energy impact crash.”

Zobayan was given special clearance to continue to fly in poor weather, though it is unclear why.

Pilot Kurt Deetz, who used to fly with Bryant until 2017, told the AP he doesn’t believe Bryant pressured Zobayan to fly in the fog – one reason a pilot could press on despite higher-than-usual risk.

“There was never any pressure Kobe put on any pilot to get somewhere – never, never,” he said.

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