Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News
By Dianne Feinstein
On January 26 last year, the hills surrounding Los Angeles were shrouded in a heavy fog when a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers took off from John Wayne Airport en route to a basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks.
While in flight, the helicopter veered from its designated flightpath and crashed into the ground near Calabasas, tragically claiming all lives onboard.
The National Transportation Safety Board, the independent federal body charged with investigating civil aviation accidents, has recently released a full report on the crash. But we’ve had enough information to take concrete steps to improve safety for some time.
An 11-page preliminary report released by the NTSB soon after the crash indicates the helicopter was neither equipped with, nor required to have, a terrain awareness and warning system, known as TAWS. The NTSB also made clear during a February 9 hearing that we may never know what the pilot was experiencing because helicopters like Mr. Bryant’s are still not required to carry flight recording devices – commonly known as black boxes – that can help investigators recreate the moments leading up to a crash. On this front, Congress can and should act now.
For too long the Federal Aviation Administration has failed to heed important safety recommendations made by the NTSB. This disregard for safety has cost lives.
While these safety procedures are not required by the FAA for these helicopters, the NTSB has issued and reissued recommendations urging the FAA to mandate terrain awareness and warning systems. However, this lifesaving equipment is currently only required on air ambulances.
Similarly, the NTSB has recommended the FAA require flight recording devices on all helicopters since 1999, but there is currently no requirement that helicopters like the one that crashed in Calabasas have one.
In the days following the accident, NTSB Board Member Jennifer Homendy said, “Certainly, TAWS could have helped to provide information to the pilot on what terrain the pilot was flying in.” The NTSB continues to investigate the crash but has stated that it stands by its longtime recommendations on the necessity of both TAWS and flight recorders.
The Calabasas crash wasn’t an isolated incident; there have been similar helicopter crashes before that also did not result in any policy changes. NTSB investigators reached similar conclusions on the necessity of additional safety equipment after helicopter tragedies in the Gulf of Mexico in 2004, in which 10 people died; in Missouri in 2011, in which 11 people died; and in 2019 in Manhattan, in which a pilot died.
The failure to mandate these simple safety measures means, unfortunately, that more people may die unnecessarily. There is no excuse for inaction in the face of these ongoing tragedies.
That’s why on January 25 my colleagues and I introduced the “Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act,” a bill that directs the FAA to mandate critical safety recommendations on helicopters carrying more than six people. This bill would require terrain awareness systems as well as flight data and voice recorders.
The measures outlined in this commonsense bill aren’t controversial. Standard use of flight data technology is supported by trade associations for the helicopter industry and safety advocacy organizations alike. Furthermore, some manufacturers have been voluntarily working to update their terrain awareness systems in order to make them safer. These efforts are substantial, and I hope they continue working to improve on-board systems to protect lives.
While no legislation can bring back the lives lost, my hope is that this bill serves as a fitting tribute that prevents future tragedies. I urge my colleagues to swiftly take up this legislation – the lives of our constituents depend on it.
Dianne Feinstein represents California in the U.S. Senate.