Nine people, including retired NBA legend Kobe Bryant, are dead after a shocking helicopter crash in California. The main questions have been: How and why did this happen? The incident appears attributable to pilot error and, if so, the employer might face liability, says a civil attorney who specializes in aviation cases.
“There’s definitely civil liability,” Kreindler & Kreindler partner and aviation litigation expert Andrew Maloney III told Law&Crime Network host Bob Bianchi. “This is not an act of god. This is not an act of nature. This is what appears to be pilot error.”
Conditions were foggy. Maloney said that the pilot was trained to fly in low-visibility weather using mechanical instruments, but he added it is always dangerous to do that.
“You get spatial disorientation,” Maloney said. “Which is what it looks like occurred here.”
He said it is “exponentially more difficult” to operate an aircraft in such weather.
“You have to have a lot of training, and pass certification tests to be qualified to do that,” Maloney said. “Because if you’re relying on your instruments, you have to ignore what your eyes and ears are telling you.”
Being inside a fog or clouds is like a total blackout, and one is only supposed to do that with instrument training, he said. It’s possible that a person in a helicopter or plane may not feel a slight turn.
“And if you’re in a slight turn, you’re starting to move,” Maloney said. “And you’re also descending, so if you’re in an area where you need to maintain your altitude like in a mountainous terrain, which is where this accident happened, you may be losing altitude and not realize it if you’re looking out your window instead of looking at your altimeter. And in that environment that he was in, the altimeter is actually changing all the time.”
The helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76 B, crashed in the hills of Calabasas. Conditions were foggy. Maloney suggested that the aircraft hit the terrain at a high speed, based on the spread-out nature of the debris.
Nine people died:
- young Alyssa Altobelli
- her mother Keri Altobelli
- Alyssa’s father, college baseball coach John Altobelli
- Gianna “Gigi” Bryant, 13, who was Alyssa Altobelli’s teammate at the Mamba Sport Academy.
- Bryant’s father, Kobe Bryant, 41
- middle-schooler Payton Chester
- her mother Sarah Chester
- Christina Mauser, a basketball coach at Harbor Day School.
- Ara Zobayan, the pilot.
The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the cause of the crash.
“I mean the NTSB is going to examine the wreckage,” Maloney said Monday. “They’re going to examine all the evidence that they can get their hands on, and through a process of elimination, they’ll look at any potential mechanical issues.”
Zobayan, the Washington Post reported on Monday, “had held a commercial license since 2007, and was qualified to fly in bad weather conditions known as instrument flight rules, according to FAA records. He was also qualified to teach people to fly in those conditions, indicating that he had significant experience.”
Bianchi brought up reports that the helicopter was circling.
“To me that says the pilot is disoriented,” Maloney said. “It doesn’t say that there is a problem with the helicopter, but they’ll look at that. They’ll look at the blades.”
If the pilot is ultimately found responsible, then his employer and the owner of the helicopter might face liability, Maloney said.
Law&Crime could not get in touch with Island Express, the company that reportedly licensed the helicopter. The Daily Beast suggested the company might have taken down its website and social media profiles. The aircraft itself is reportedly owned by a Jim Bagge, which is the same name as an Island Express executive.
Aircraft manufacturer Sikorsky said that they are cooperating with the NTSB investigation.
Safety is our top priority; if there are any actionable findings from the investigation, we will inform our S-76 customers.
— Sikorsky (@Sikorsky) January 26, 2020
Kurt Deetz said he used to work for Island Express, and flew Bryant between 2014 and 2016, usually in the same helicopter that crashed Sunday. He suggested that the incident could be due to bad weather, not a mechanical problem.
“The likelihood of a catastrophic twin-engine failure on that aircraft—it just doesn’t happen,” he told The Los Angeles Times.
[Screengrab via WPLG]