Helicopter company in Kobe Bryant crash not licensed to fly in bad weather

The California company that owns the helicopter that crashed, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, was not licensed to fly choppers by cockpit instruments when visibility was bad, NBC News confirmed Friday.

Although pilot Ara Zobayan did have the proper federal certification to fly by IFR, or instrument flight rules, he would have been restricted to observe the licensing held by Island Express Helicopters.

“Speaking generally, a pilot has to observe any limitations on the company he or she works for, regardless of the pilot’s personal ratings,” the FAA said in a statement. “If a company is not authorized to conduct flights in bad-weather conditions, the pilot while flying for that company can only conduct flights in visual conditions.”

Meaning, the pilot can only fly if he or she can see where they are going.

“That said,” the FAA added. “A pilot has a lot of discretion in how to respond to an emergency situation.”

Asked whether the agency was suggesting there was some kind of emergency that prompted Zobayan to take off Sunday in foul weather, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said no.

“It means that if a pilot encounters an emergency in flight, the pilot has wide latitude on how to respond,” he said in an email.

Bryant, his teenage daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed when the chopper, owned by Island Express Helicopters, crashed in Calabasas, near Malibu. It was en route to Camarillo Airport in Ventura County, near Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy.

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NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna
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NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference kisses daughter Gianna Bryant during the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch during the U.S. national championships swimming meet Thursday, July 26, 2018, in Irvine, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the first half of an NCAA college basketball game between Connecticut and Houston, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 17: Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Atlanta Hawks at Staples Center on November 17, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 17: Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Atlanta Hawks at Staples Center on November 17, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 27: Gianna Bryant and her father, former NBA player Kobe Bryant, attend the WNBA All-Star Game 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on July 27, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
IRVINE, CA - JULY 26: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant watch during day 2 of the Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships at the Woollett Aquatics Center on July 26, 2018 in Irvine, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Gianna Bryant, daughter of Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference, handles the ball during warm ups before the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference warms up with daughter Gianna Bryant during the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Zobayan, 49, was an experienced pilot with 8,200 hours of flying time, federal investigators have said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash and has already noted that the chopper lacked a safety system called TAWS, which stands for terrain awareness and warning. It alerts a pilot when an aircraft gets too close to the ground.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., over whose district the Sikorsky S-76B flew, called on the FAA Thursday to make TAWS systems mandatory on all helicopters – not just ambulance and medical helicopters.

But experts interviewed by NBC News and other news outlets are divided over whether a TAWS system would have prevented this particular crash.

In the aftermath of the crash, Island Express Helicopters suspended all flights.

“The shock of the accident affected all staff, and management decided that would be suspended until such time as it was deemed appropriate for staff and customers,” the company said in a statement.

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