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Pilot Training or Mandated HTAWS?

By: The CTS Team   •  

Pilot training may go further than relying on technology when in the thick of an emergency

California Congressman Brad Sherman has introduced legislation to mandate Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (TAWS) on all helicopters following the January 26, 2020 crash that killed Kobe Bryant and 8 others. But would TAWS really have prevented the accident? Or would better pilot training have saved their lives?

He called the legislation the “Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act” and said that if the accident helicopter was equipped with TAWS, the tragic crash could have been avoided. I’m not so sure.

As we all know, the weather that day was less than optimal. There was fog and mist and of course, rising terrain. I agree that TAWS is a critical safety device and having one could certainly play a role in preventing an accident in these conditions, except for one thing. 

I’m not sure that the pilot was current and able to handle the flight into inadvertent IMC. Yes, he was IFR qualified and was even a CFII, but his company operated VFR only so I wonder how often he flew IFR, if at all. The only reason I question this is because of the final moments of the flight. 

A witness saw the helicopter emerge from the bottom of the clouds descending at a high speed, rolling left and banked enough that he could see the entire bottom of the aircraft. Flight data indicated that they were descending at a rate of over 4000 fpm. That does not sound like a controlled descent to me. Not when he was only 1500 feet above the ground to begin with. 

There was no immediate evidence of engine failure or mechanical problems, so pilot error must at least be considered. He was trying to climb out of the fog and also initiated a turn that progressed into the high rate of descent and excessive bank angle that led to the crash. It sounds like a spatial disorientation event and I’m not sure why the Congressman felt that a TAWS would have helped that situation. 

The pilot already knew about the rising terrain - he flew the route often in VFR conditions. It seems as though he was maneuvering to avoid the hills when the situation escalated. If he was disoriented and losing control in IMC conditions, the loud aural warning of the TAWS alert would not have helped him regain control. It may have even made the situation worse by distracting him further from the task of flying the helicopter.

The official cause will be published eventually, but I think the “Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act” should include pilot training in inadvertent IMC conditions in addition to the TAWS requirement. Accidents like this one could, and should, be preventable.

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