Recent Developments

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Friday, January 31, 2020

Update Regarding Crash of Island Express Holding Corp. Sikorsky S-76B N72EX on January 26, 2020, in Calabasas, California

On January 26, 2020, eight passengers along with the pilot were tragically killed when the Sikorsky-76B aircraft they were travelling in crashed into mountainous terrain at an altitude of roughly 1,085 feet above sea level near Calabasas, California.  Early reports indicate that weather may play a critical role in the accident investigation as the aircraft encountered dense fog in the minutes leading up to the crash.

The helicopter took off on the morning of Sunday, January 26, 2020, at 9:06 a.m. from Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, carrying the eight passengers who were travelling to a youth basketball game that was to take place at a sports academy located in Thousand Oaks, California. Passengers included NBA legend Kobe Bryant, who owned the sports academy, and his daughter, as well as other players on the youth team, their family members and their coach.  The aircraft was operating under visual flight rules (“VFR”), meaning that it was intended that the flight was to take place in clear skies allowing the pilot to operate the aircraft with visual reference to the ground and by visually avoiding obstructions and other aircraft, without totally depending on navigational instruments. 

Travelling north the aircraft was placed in a holding pattern in the area of Glendale at approximately 9:21 a.m. to allow other aircraft to proceed through the airspace near Burbank Bob Hope Airport.  At 9:24 a.m. the controller advised the pilot that the hold would “be a little while”.  The pilot acknowledged and advised air traffic control that he would remain in the holding pattern.  It was during this time that the pilot requested permission to proceed in Special VFR flight conditions (“SVFR”).  SVFR is usually requested when weather conditions deteriorate along the aircraft’s intended route of flight and the pilot generally keeps in close communication with air traffic control.  Indeed, on the morning of the flight, federal weather forecasters had advised the aviation community of the need for “instrument flight rules” as it was predicted that areas of dense fog would be in the aircraft’s flight path.

At 9:33 a.m., the Sikorsky S76-B aircraft was released from its holding pattern and after discussion with air traffic control the pilot was cleared to follow the I-5 freeway north and then the I-118 and the I-101 freeways toward its destination as well as maintain SVFR conditions.  The pilot acknowledged this direction and indicated his intention to follow the I-5; I-118 and I-101 freeways.  Burbank air traffic control then switched the aircraft to the Van Nuys air traffic control center.

The pilot contacted the Van Nuys Center and advised that he was transitioning to their airspace under SVFR.  Air traffic control provided the pilot with the weather conditions.  The pilot was provided clearance to fly though Van Nuys Center’s airspace and he requested to speak with So Cal Air Traffic Control once he cleared Van Nuys airspace.  This was the last voice transmission from the pilot to the Van Nuys Center.

Shortly after this communication the pilot requested “flight following” from So Cal Air Traffic Control, which essentially means that the pilot asked to be tracked by radar to assist him in flying through the airspace, to keep him apprised of other aircraft in the vicinity to avoid a mid-air collision and to advise him of terrain or other hazards. 

It was during this time that the weather conditions substantially deteriorated making flying by visual reference to the ground virtually impossible.  So Cal ATC advised, however, that the aircraft’s altitude was too low to be tracked by radar (meaning that “flight following” could not be provided).  The pilot then began a sudden ascent to approximately 2300 feet, mean sea level (MSL) to apparently avoid a cloud layer. 

Upon reaching an altitude of approximately 2300 feet MSL, the helicopter then began a descending left turn and crashed into the hills of Calabasas at approximately 9:45 a.m., at roughly 1,085 feet MSL (the height of the terrain).  The NTSB reported that the descent rate was approximately 2,000 feet per minute which indicates a very steep descent at a high rate of speed.  Preliminary review of the wreckage indicated that the aircraft was intact when it impacted the terrain, and all occupants were killed on impact.

While the cause of the crash is not yet known, undoubtedly, weather will be a primary focus of the investigation.  Unfortunately, the aircraft was not equipped with either a cockpit voice recorder or a digital flight data recorder which would have provided critical information to the accident investigation.  Unlike large commercial aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration did not require that the accident aircraft be equipped with these “black boxes”. 

Additionally, the accident aircraft was not equipped with a Terrain Awareness Warning System (“TAWS”), notwithstanding that in 2006 the NTSB issued a safety recommendation recommending that that helicopters such as the Sikorsky S-76B should be equipped with such technology.  A copy of the NTSB’s 2006 Safety Recommendation can be found here

Similar to the “black boxes” the FAA did not require that helicopters such as the accident helicopter be equipped with this TAWS technology.  While it is too early to know the precise cause of the accident, the TAWS would have surely provided the pilot with a warning that the aircraft was going to impact terrain.  This could have proven critical, especially since the aircraft missed clearing the mountain by as little as 20-30 feet.  Although the aircraft was equipped with “radar altimeters” that provide information regarding the distance between the aircraft and the ground, these systems are notoriously unreliable in any sort of a turn much above 10 degrees angle of bank, and are virtually useless when operating in an area of steeply rising terrain. 

Early reports also indicate that the company that operated the accident aircraft did not allow its pilots to fly in IFR conditions, and this may be the reason why the pilot requested SVFR clearance.  Undoubtedly, once the aircraft encountered dense fog, the pilot could have declared an emergency advising that he was switching to IFR flight which would have allowed air traffic control to vector the aircraft for a landing at the nearest airport.  The practices of the operator will certainly be examined during the course of the accident investigation.   

It is expected that the NTSB will release its Preliminary Report in the coming days.  This will be the first of three reports that the NTSB will issue in connection with its accident investigation.  The second and third reports, known as the Factual Report and Final (or Probable Cause) Report, will likely not be issued for at least another 18 months. We will continue to provide additional updates as the investigation into this unspeakable tragedy continues

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