The charter company that owned and operated the helicopter that crashed last month with Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others on board, had modified the interior of the aircraft to so it could seat more passengers, according to documents filed with the Federal Aviation Administration.
A series of equipment changes to the Sikorsky S-76B were reported to the FAA in 2016, shortly after Island Express Helicopters purchased the aircraft at auction from the state of Illinois. The documents were provided by the FAA in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
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The Sikorsky, registration N72EX, crashed January 26, 2020, near Calabasas after the pilot radioed that he was climbing to get clear of clouds. All on board were killed, including Kobe and Gianna Bryant, Christina Mauser, Sarah and Payton Chester, John, Kerry, and Alyssa Altobelli, and pilot Ara Zobayan.
In March, 2016 two captains chairs were removed from the passenger compartment and were replaced with an aft-facing “divan” or bench-like seat, according to an FAA Form 337, filed after any significant repair or alteration is made to an aircraft.
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The replacement seating could accommodate up to seven in the passenger compartment, plus two cockpit seats, one of which could be occupied by an eighth passenger. The new seating arrangement was FAA-approved for the S-76, according to the form.
Also in 2016 the company reported it removed a cockpit voice recorder that was installed when the aircraft was purchased in 2015. In 2017 more electronic equipment was replaced and upgraded, and in March 2019 weather radar systems were removed.
Island Express said last week it had halted all of its operations indefinitely. Preliminary findings on the crash from the NTSB were expected this week.
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 permitted 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.