Recent Developments

Speiser Krause in the News and Recent Developments

Monday, February 10, 2020

NTSB releases Investigative Update into the Crash of Island Express Holding Corp. Sikorsky S-76B N72EX on January 26, 2020, in Calabasas, California

On February 7, 2020 the National Transportation Safety Board released its first formal Investigative Update into the Sikorsky S-76B crash that killed eight passengers and the pilot on January 26, 2020.  Parties to the investigation include the operator of the flight, Island Express Helicopters; the Federal Aviation Administration; the airframe manufacturer, Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation; and representatives from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.  The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (as an accredited representative) and the engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Canada (as a technical adviser) are also participating in the investigation.  A copy of the Investigative Update can be found here

The Update contained a description of the location of the wreckage and contained preliminary findings that the main and tail rotor assemblies exhibited damage consistent with powered rotation at the time of impact.  The helicopter’s engines were also examined at the wreckage site and showed no evidence of uncontained or catastrophic pre-impact internal failure.  All portions of the wreckage were retained by the NTSB for future evaluation.

The NTSB confirmed that the aircraft departed from the John Wayne-Orange County Airport at 9:06 a.m. under visual flight rules (“VFR”) travelling north-northwest at an altitude of approximately 700-800 feet mean sea level (“msl”).  As the aircraft approached the Burbank Class C airspace at approximately 9:20 a.m. the pilot requested to transition the area along Highway 101.  Burbank weather reported Instrument Flight Rules (“IFR”) in the area and air traffic control advised the pilot that cloud tops were reported at 2,400 feet msl.  In response the pilot requested Special VFR clearance and ATC acknowledged and also advised that the helicopter needed to hold to allow IFR traffic to clear. 

At 9:32 a.m., ATC cleared the helicopter to transition the Burbank Class C airspace by following the I-5 freeway, maintaining Special VFR clearance at or below 2,500 feet.  The pilot then advised ATC that he would follow the I-118 and loop around Van Nuys Airport to follow the I-101.  ATC acknowledged this transmission.

At 9:39 a.m. Van Nuys ATC contacted the helicopter and asked if he was still in VFR conditions.  The pilot confirmed that he was, and advised that he was at an altitude of 1,500 feet.  Van Nuys ATC then advised the pilot to contact SoCal (Southern California Terminal Approach Control) for further advisory services.

The pilot contact SoCal and advised that he was proceeding to Camarillo at 1,500 feet.  The SoCal controller advised that he would not be able to maintain radar contact at such a low altitude and he terminated ATC services to the helicopter.  That controller was then relieved by another SoCal controller and at 9:45 a.m. the pilot contacted ATC and advised that he intended on climbing above the clouds and he requested advisory radar services.  Since ATC services were terminated by the prior controller, the second controller was unaware of the aircraft and asked the helicopter to identify itself.  In response the pilot advised that he was climbing to 4,000 feet apparently to climb above the cloud layer.  No further transmissions were received from the helicopter.

Radar data indicates that at this time the aircraft ascended to 2,300 feet msl and began a left turn.  Eight seconds later the aircraft began a rapid descending left turn.  The descent rate was in excess of 4,000 feet per minute indicating a very high rate of descent.  The aircraft then impacted terrain at an approximate ground speed of over 160 knots.

The Investigative Update contained numerous pictures depicting dense fog and low clouds in the area of the crash, as well as cloud tops of 2,400 feet msl.  The update also contained certain witness testimony of what individuals saw and heard in the moments prior to the crash.

The helicopter was manufactured in 1991 with a 12-passenger seat configuration.  The operator purchased the aircraft in 2015 and converted the aircraft to an eight-seat configuration.  The aircraft was not equipped, nor was it required to be equipped, with either a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder.  Maintenance records were reviewed and there did not appear to be any pre-impact maintenance anomalies according to the applicable maintenance log. 

Of significance is that the operator, Island Express Helicopters, was certified as a Part 135 air carrier but was only allowed to conduct passenger flights in VFR conditions.  This certainly explains why the pilot requested Special VFR clearance notwithstanding that reported weather indicated IFR conditions.  Weather, piloting issues, the policies and procedures of the operator, air traffic control clearances, as well as the aircraft itself, will all be examined by the NTSB as its investigation continues.

The NTSB advised that it will release additional information as warranted and it is expected that a formal Preliminary Report will be released in the coming weeks.  We will provide additional information as the investigation progresses.

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