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Island Express sues air traffic controllers in Kobe Bryant crash

Kobe Bryant was among nine people on board who died when this Sikorsky crashed in Calabasas on Jan. 26.
Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were among nine people on board who died when this Sikorsky, shown in 2019, crashed in a Calabasas mountain area Jan. 26.
(Polaris)

The embattled charter company that operated a helicopter that crashed in January, killing Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others, has blamed two air traffic controllers for the accident.

In a cross-complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court last week, Island Express Helicopters and Island Express Holding Corp. alleged that “a series of erroneous acts and/or omissions” by the controllers resulted in the crash.

The controllers work for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Southern California TRACON, which handles flights in the region.

“Had [the controllers] not engaged in the numerous negligent acts and/or omissions stated herein, then the Pilot [Ara Zobayan] would not have been forced to respond to multiple [air traffic control] requests and commands during the most critical phase of the flight,” the cross-complaint said.

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An FAA spokesman said Tuesday the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The Sikorsky S-76B slammed into a fog-shrouded hillside in Calabasas on Jan. 26 en route to a youth basketball game.

According to a transcript of Zobayan’s communication with air traffic controllers released by the National Transportation Safety Board in June, the pilot said at 9:44 a.m. he planned to climb above the layer of clouds west of Van Nuys.

“Uh, we climbing to 4,000,” Zobayan said.

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“And then what are you gonna do when you get to altitude?” the controller asked.
There wasn’t any response.

Though Zobayan said the helicopter was climbing, the NTSB’s aircraft performance study said it was actually descending. The pilot “could have misperceived both pitch and roll angles” and been suffering from “spatial disorientation.”

The NTSB’s investigation of the crash is ongoing. The agency hasn’t released “probable cause determinations” or similar findings.

Four wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against Island Express in connection with the crash, including by Kobe’s widow, Vanessa Bryant. Her lead attorney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The cross-complaint by Island Express accuses one of the controllers of not properly terminating radar services, leading the pilot to believe “he was still being surveilled and being provided flight following” and that air traffic controllers “would have warned him of unsafe proximity to terrain.”

The filing singles out air traffic control communication with Zobayan during the final minutes of the flight.

“These errors were compounded by [one of the controllers] monopolizing the Pilot’s attention during the critical phase of the flight by making multiple radio calls, requiring transponder ident, and requesting the Pilot to state where he was and what his intentions were,” the cross-complaint said. “The combination of increased stress, workload, and distraction significantly impacted the Pilot’s ability to fly the aircraft.”

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The cross-complaint speculates that Zobayan experienced “an illusion that is 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 … creating the illusion of turning or accelerating on an entirely different axis.”

The Lakers, Dodgers and Sparks were among the teams, players and others to honor former Lakers star Kobe Bryant on what would have been his 42nd birthday.

“The disoriented pilot may maneuver the aircraft into a dangerous altitude to correct the aircraft’s perceived altitude,” the cross-complaint said.

Among other items, the filing seeks a declaration that the cross-defendants are “obligated to defend and indemnify” Island Express.

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Attorneys for Zobayan’s estate, which is a defendant in Vanessa Bryant’s suit, previously blamed the helicopter’s passengers for the accident in a court filing.

“Any injuries or damages to plaintiffs and/or their decedent were directly caused in full or in part by the negligence or fault of plaintiffs and/or their decedent, including their knowing and voluntary encounter with the risks involved, and that this negligence was a substantial factor in causing their purported damages, for which this answering defendant bears no responsibility,” the estate’s answer to Bryant’s lawsuit said.


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