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Company that operated helicopter that killed Kobe Bryant is suing two air traffic controllers

The company that operated the helicopter that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others is suing two air traffic controllers over the crash. 

Island Express claims the two men caused pilot Ara Zobayan stress and distracted him by repeatedly calling while he was flying in fog and denying him the use of the radar, TMZ reports. 

Bryant’s widow and relatives of other passengers are already suing the helicopter operator. 

Island Express’ helicopter was taking Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and six other passengers to Bryant´s youth sports academy in nearby Thousand Oaks, where Gianna was competing in a basketball tournament.

The aircraft crashed into a hillside during foggy weather in Calabasas, California, on January 26 killing all eight passengers and pilot Ara Zobayan.  

In a lawsuit Island Express say one of the controllers refused Zobayan’s request for radar guidance.

The air traffic controller is said to have told the pilot: ‘I’m going to lose radar and comms [communications] probably pretty shortly so you can just squawk V-F-R [visual flight rules] and when you get closer go to Camarillo tower.’

The lawsuit says a second air traffic controller who then took over was unclear when Zobayan checked in.  It says he later repeatedly called the pilot, adding to his stress.  

In a lawsuit against the helicopter operator, filed in February Vanessa Bryant said the pilot shouldn’t have flown in those conditions and should have aborted the flight.

Zobayan’s brother responded in a court filing that Kobe Bryant knew the risks of helicopter flying and his survivors aren’t entitled to damages from the pilot’s estate. 

Island Express Helicopters Inc. has denied responsibility, calling the crash ‘an act of God’ beyond its control.

A report released by federal investigators last month said Zobayan reported the aircraft was ascending when it actually was heading for the ground. 

It said Zobayan may have ‘misperceived’ the angles at which he was descending and banking, which can happen when a pilot becomes disoriented in low visibility. 

The 1,700 pages of reports do not offer a conclusion of what caused the crash but compile factual reports. 

A final report by the National Transportation Safety Board on the cause is due later.

The NTSB said there was no sign of engine failure in the Sikorsky S-76 and the rotor was spinning just before it hit the ground at about 184 mph. The impact caused a crater and scattered debris over an area the size of a football field in the Calabasas hills. Flames engulfed the wreckage.

About 45 minutes before takeoff, Zobayan had texted a group of people overseeing the flight that the weather was looking ‘OK.’ Richard Webb, owner of OC Helicopters, which booked the flight, agreed. 

Zobayan took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. with the eight passengers he had flown the day before to the same destination.

When the helicopter hadn’t landed within an hour, an executive of the company that operated the aircraft began a frantic search for it on tracking software and had another company chopper dispatched to look for it. 

Four current and one former pilot for Island Express were interviewed by NTSB investigators and while some praised the company, others said the safety culture could have been better, according to the reports.

One pilot said Zobayan, the company’s chief pilot, didn’t discuss safety policy or the minimum visibility needed to fly in certain weather. Another comment said the company didn’t have a real safety management program.

The company, however, said it had no problem canceling flights if weather was poor. It cited six flights it canceled for Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard and one for celebrity Kylie Jenner that would have used the same helicopter.

Cate Brady, a personal assistant to Bryant, told NTSB investigators that he never complained or pushed back if his flights were canceled.

Island Express reported 150 flight cancellations due to weather last year. Before the January crash, there were 13 cancellations due to weather for 2020, all logged in the two days before Bryant’s fatal flight.

The afternoon before the flight — after returning the Bryants and their guests to Orange County — Zobayan had texted that he had just checked the weather for his next flight and it was ‘not the best day tomorrow but it is not as bad as today.’

The flight departure Saturday morning had been delayed by weather by 15 minutes, Brady said.

 Autopsies released last month showed Zobayan did not have drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the crash.

The others killed were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates. 

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