Is the NTSB paying extra attention to the Kobe Bryant crash — Not yet
The January 26, 2020 helicopter crash in Calabasas, CA that took the life of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others was both shocking and unexpected. Later that day, before the general public could fully grasp the magnitude of what had happened, the NTSB, which is the US government agency responsible for investigating accidents involving air transportation, initiated a major investigation that included a team of 18 experts who were dispatched to the crash site.
NTSB investigator Carol Hogan examines the wreckage of the helicopter involved in the crash that killed Kobe Bryant (Source: NTSB)
The NTSB routinely sends what it calls its go team to plane crashes and other transportation crashes around the US and around the world. This team is made up of NTSB personnel, including one NTSB Board member, who are on 24-hr standby ready to travel to an accident site to begin a major investigation of a serious accident. Most non-military aviation accidents involving an aircraft in the US, or US-registered aircraft elsewhere in the world, are investigated by the NTSB, but only a handful involve the use of an NTSB go team because major investigations are for the small percentage of events considered to be significant, or potentially significant, to the US transportation system.
As tragic as this crash was, some may have wondered whether the NTSB considered this crash merited a major investigation because of the presence of Kobe Bryant. The NTSB may launch a go team for many reasons, but typically it does so because of a combination of the number of deaths and serious injuries, or because the accident may be related to ongoing NTSB safety concerns. In the case of the crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others, both reasons were true.
Of the 51 major aviation accident investigations launched by the NTSB over the last decade, only six were associated with a higher number of fatalities. Also, this crash may be directly related to a 2004 helicopter crash involving a version of the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter used by Kobe. In that crash, the NTSB recommended that the FAA require that helicopters like the Sikorsky S-76 include a terrain avoidance system that would warn the pilot of terrain hazards in the helicopter’s flight path. While the FAA mandated that air ambulance helicopters use this system, it did not require the same for helicopters flying regular passengers. The NTSB closed that issue in 2014, finding the FAA’s response to be unacceptable.
If this specific technology were on Kobe’s helicopter, there is no guarantee that it would have prevented the accident. It may be months before the NTSB concludes its investigation, including analyzing whether that technology was relevant to the crash. If it turns out to be relevant, it is quite likely that the NTSB may once again raise the issue of requiring terrain avoidance technology on passenger helicopters like the one involved in the Kobe Bryant crash.
The major difference between this aviation accident and others conducted by the NTSB is the amount of media attention that is focused on the crash and its aftermath. That media attention may change how the NTSB interacts with the media, but it will likely have no significant effect on the accident investigation process.
After the final report is written and released to the public, it would not be at all surprising if the NTSB takes advantage of the public’s interest and use that to influence those directly involved in developing and implementing aviation safety-related policies and regulations, encouraging them to make changes in helicopter-related regulations and operations that would make it much less likely that tragedies like the crash in Calabasas will ever happen again.