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Could a safety feature have prevented Sunday's helicopter crash?

Posted at 10:45 PM, Jan 28, 2020

As investigators attempt to figure out what caused Sunday's plane crash that killed nine, including Kobe Bryant, questions emerged on how Sunday's tragedy could have been avoided.

While investigators examine whether pilot error, weather, or mechanical problems caused Sunday's crash, an NTSB investigator says one safety feature could have prevented Sunday's tragedy altogether.

NTSB investigator Jennifer Homendy said that the helicopter did not have a terrain awareness and warning system, known as TAWS. The helicopter was not required to have one on board, despite previous calls by the NTSB to mandate them on passenger helicopters.

"Certainly, TAWS could have helped," Homendy said, stressing that it is too early in the investigation to conclude that TAWS would have prevented the crash.

Homendy said that the helicopter dropped at a rate of 2,000 feet per minute, and had gone from 2,300 feet before crashing at an altitude of 1,085 feet above sea level.

According to the FAA, TAWS can warn pilots of:

  • Excessive rate of descent
  • Excessive closure rate to terrain
  • Altitude loss after takeoff
  • Negative climb rate
  • Flight into terrain when not in landing configuration
  • Excessive downward deviation from glideslope
  • Premature descent
  • Terrain along future portions of the intended flight route

TAWS is required on many commercial airplanes and is installed in 95% of commercial airplanes, but helicopters are not part of the requirement.

In 2006, the NTSB had determined that TAWS could have prevented 13 of 17 helicopter crashes when the helicopter had a controlled flight into terrain.

"When used for helicopter operations, TAWS can include a forward-looking terrain awareness display, which provides aural alerts and visual indications of terrain and obstacles," an NTSB report said. "The aural alerts are caution terrain, warning terrain, caution obstacle, and warning obstacle. The visual indications of terrain and obstacles can be displayed on one or two screens."

The NTSB then made a recommendation to the FAA to require helicopters with six or more passengers to have TAWS installed. The FAA did not follow the NTSB's recommendation.

The FAA closed out the NTSB's recommendation in 2012.

Homendy said on Tuesday that the FAA "failed to act."

The NTSB's recommendation followed a crash on March 23, 2004, involving an Era Aviation Sikorsky S-76A++ helicopter, which crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, killing 10 people on board, including eight oil workers.