The charter company that owned and operated the helicopter that crashed in Southern California Sunday, killing Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven others said Thursday it was halting its services for “operational reasons.”
Representatives for Island Express Helicopters told NBC News it was not clear how long the suspension of service would last.
A federal official familiar with the crash investigation also confirmed that the company’s FAA certification to offer charter flights was limited to operations under visual flight rules.
That meant it was not legal for the flight from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Camarillo Airport in Ventura County to be conducted using navigation instruments, even though the pilot was instrument rated and the helicopter equipped for instrument flights.
Island Express owned the 1991 Sikorsky S-76B that crashed near Calabasas and employed Ara Zobayan, 50, who was at the controls and was also the company’s chief pilot. The helicopter struck a hillside near Las Virgenes Road while flying in conditions with limited visibility and low clouds.
Zobayan’s last radio transmission to air traffic controllers was that he was trying to climb above clouds, federal officials said.
The National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, said a determination on the cause of the accident is likely months – if not a year – away. Investigators moved the wreckage from the crash site to a site in Phoenix where workers could be seen arranging rotor blades and other mechanical parts for inspection.
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After the crash on Jan. 26, NTSB officials said the agency had unsuccessfully advocated for the mandated installation of warning devices in larger helicopters that can alert pilots that they’re dangerously close to the ground, perhaps averting a crash.
Terrain Awareness Warning System, or TAWS, devices are required by the FAA on helicopters used as air ambulances.
“TAWS could have helped to provide information the pilot on what terrain the pilot was flying in,” said NTSB Board Member Jennifer Homendy.
San Fernando Valley Congressman Brad Sherman said Thursday he would introduce a bill named for Bryant and his daughter that would require the devices on all helicopters.
“Had this system been on the helicopter, it is likely the tragic crash could have been avoided,” Sherman said in a press release.
Aviation experts said while the devices could provide an extra warning in an emergency, their value is more limited in helicopters, which are almost always operating under visual flight rules, or VFR, conditions, and fly at low altitudes and are often close to obstacles and terrain.
In 2016 an air medical helicopter equipped with a TAWS system crashed in Alabama about a minute after takeoff in poor visibility. The NTSB said the pilot flew into fog and “lost control due to spatial disorientation,” meaning the pilot could no longer sense which way the aircraft was moving without an outside visual reference.