Bryant’s Helicopter Operator Sues FAA Air Traffic Controllers

The pilot of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter was flying VFR until just before impact. NTSB

Aircraft accident investigations often take years as the players sift through the physical evidence, voice and radar recordings and interview witnesses trying to piece together the cause. The ongoing investigation into last January’s crash of the helicopter (N72EX) carrying basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others, took an interesting twist last week after Island Express Helicopters, the charter company operating the big Sikorsky, individually sued two SoCal Tracon air traffic controllers for wrongful death.

Named in the suit were two FAA employees (whose names we removed from this story upon request). The suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleges both controllers were negligent at their jobs because of “a series of erroneous acts and/or omissions committed by Cross-Defendants,” and hence were directly responsible for the accident.

Bryant’s helicopter was operating VFR on the morning of the accident and was enroute from John Wayne Orange County Airport to Camarillo. The suit reports inflight visibility began to decrease as the aircraft entered the Los Angeles Basin, adding, “After transitioning from the Burbank Air Traffic Control Tower to SoCal Tracon, the pilot—Ara George Zobayan—contacted SoCal and remained on that frequency until the time of the accident.” During his time on the SoCal frequency, Zobayan spoke first to Controller A and requested flight following, a request this controller denied stating, “I’m going to lose radar and comms probably pretty shortly so you can just squawk VFR and when you get closer, go to Camarillo tower.” The helicopter pilot, was following Highway 101 until moments before impact.

The suit claims “This denial [of service] was improper because radar contact had not been lost and services were being denied based on the possibility that they might be lost at some point in the future. The fact that N72EX was able to contact SoCal four minutes later, and its transponder was still observed by the controller, proves that the prediction of lost contact was not accurate and services could and should have been provided continuously.” Text of the suit claims Controller A was relieved on his radar position by Controller B. During the position relief briefing, Controller A apparently did not mention his communication with the helicopter.

A few minutes after the personnel switch, the pilot keyed his transmitter, “and SoCal for helicopter two echo x-ray, we gonna go ahead and start our climb to go above the uh layers and uh we can stay with you here.” Because [Controller A] never mentioned the existence of the helicopter to [Controller B], the suit claims “critical time was lost as [Controller B] struggled to identify N72EX with no help from [Controller A].” Controller A later told investigators he did not use a checklist during his relief briefing of Controller B, something the receiving controller refuted in his own statement.

Controllers unable to provide services will typically terminate the conversation with something like, “Squawk VFR, radar service terminated.” The suit says “the accident was caused by controller A’s failure to properly terminate radar services. Because he never actually terminated radar services with N72EX, attorneys believe the pilot would have assumed he was still being surveilled and being provided flight following. The instruction, ‘You can just squawk VFR’ was no more than an instruction to the pilot to change his transponder setting. It is apparent that [Controller A] incorrectly thought he had terminated radar service for N72EX because he failed to brief [Controller B], his replacement, about the existence of N72EX.” In his interview, Controller B admitted that “[h]e remembered the pilot [N72EX] just talking to him like he had already been in contact and was receiving services, but he had no record of him.” Post-accident interviews reportedly confirmed the two controllers were not really busy enough to deny the requested services. Zobayan thought he was still receiving radar services at the time of the accident the court filing says and “would have operated the aircraft under the assumption that ATC was monitoring his flight and would have warned him of unsafe proximity to terrain.”

Controller B said one reason he did not deliver any flight following services was that N72EX was never radar identified by either controller. For that reason alone, neither controller mentioned the loss of contact with the helicopter to their immediate supervisor. The suit claims, “Once startled by N72EX’s call to climb above the layers, [Controller B] took 9 seconds to respond to N72EX, and then proceeded to make four radio contacts, including one instruction (Ident) and question (where say intentions) during the most critical 33-second segment of the accident flight.” Zobayan’s workload and stress level in deteriorating weather conditions were unnecessarily overloaded by Controller A’s multiple errors and compounded by Controller B’s errors a few moments later.

Finally, the suit says, “There is no indication from calculated data or radio traffic that the accident pilot was panicking or beyond his piloting capabilities and was within a few hundred feet of clearing the clouds at the time ATC required him to “ident,” which likely caused the pilot to experience a ‘Coriolis effect,’ an illusion created when a pilot has been in a turn long enough for the fluid in the ear canal to move at the same speed as the canal. A movement of the head in a different direction, such as looking at something in a different part of the flight deck, sets the fluid moving, creating the illusion of turning or accelerating on an entirely different axis. This action causes the pilot to think the aircraft is performing a maneuver it is not. The disoriented pilot may maneuver the aircraft into a dangerous attitude in an attempt to correct the aircraft ’s perceived attitude.” Tracking data indicated the pilot made a left turn just prior to impact, shortly after the pilot reported climbing to 4,000 feet.

Radar/ADS-B data indicate that as the aircraft “was climbing southwesterly along a course aligned with Highway 101, it reached an altitude of 2,300 feet msl, approximately 1,500 feet above the highway, but still below the surrounding terrain when it began a left turn. Eight seconds later, the aircraft began descending as the left turn continued. The descent rate increased to over 4,000 feet per minute while the ground speed reached 160 knots. The last ADS-B target was received at 1,200 feet msl approximately 400 feet southwest of the accident site.” There are as of yet no confirmations available that indicate the pilot’s last minute maneuver had anything to do with his awareness of the nearby terrain, something a VFR pilot would have been required to understand.

The Los Angeles Times reported, “Among other items, the filing seeks a declaration that the cross-defendants [the two controllers] are ‘obligated to defend and indemnify’ Island Express.” The lawsuit is demanding a jury trial.

Rob MarkAuthor
Rob Mark is an award-winning journalist, business jet pilot, flight instructor, and blogger.

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