The Company That Owned the Helicopter Kobe Bryant Died in Has a Long History of Safety Disputes

Kobe Bryant’s death, along with the death of his daughter, Gianna, and seven other people aboard a doomed helicopter on Jan. 26, shocked the world. In the nearly two weeks since the crash, several tributes have been paid to the former Laker and the other victims of the crash. A public memorial is also planned for Feb. 24. Even now, as the untimely loss of life has begun to sink in, fans can’t fathom how Bryant and so many others were lost so suddenly. As it turns out, the company that owned and operated the helicopter that took Bryant’s life had a spotty safety record.

Island Express Helicopters Inc. has lost several aircraft to accidents

The helicopter carrying Bryant crashed into a hillside in Calabasas in 2020, but it isn’t the first time the company has recorded injuries during flights. In 1985, a helicopter registered to Island Express Helicopters Inc. collided with a Helitrans helicopter over the ocean. All those aboard the copter owned by Island Express survived, but several were seriously injured. One person on the Helitrans aircraft was killed in the crash. Both companies were cited for improper safety procedures.

Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers takes a helicopter to his last game against the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016 at Staples Center i
Kobe Bryant arrives via helicopter to his last game in the NBA in 2016 | Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In December 1999, the company had another incident in which a helicopter crash-landed during a sightseeing tour, no one was killed in the incident. In May 2008, the company recorded another serious incident. A loss of engine power sent a helicopter hurtling to the ground. At the time, the copter was 200 to 400 feet in the air, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. The accident, which took place in Catalina, killed three and seriously injured three more.

Island Express Helicopters Inc. has butted heads with safety inspectors

The company was well known to the Federal Aviation Administration. In fact, they had several run-ins with a safety inspector over the years and across several changes in management. According to the New York Times, the company didn’t have the necessary certification to fly in poor weather. According to reports, Island Express Helicopters only had an operating certification for V.F.R, better known as visual fight rules, although the pilot was certified to fly by instruments. The V.F.R certification is not unusual, according to reports.

The issues between Island Express and the F.A.A stretched back decades, though. According to MSN, the company pushed back against stringent safety standards for years and even asked for a new safety inspector when they regularly disagreed with the one they were assigned. Gary Lackey, who was assigned to inspect the company at one point, told reporters that he was concerned with their lack of investment in safety. He stepped back as an inspector on at least one occasion.

What caused the crash that killed Kobe Bryant?

Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, her basketball coach, and several others involved with a youth basketball team boarded a helicopter at John Wayne Airport. At 9:06 am, the aircraft took off en route to Camarillo Airport in Camarillo, California. According to The Los Angeles Times, it was a flight that Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were intimately familiar with.

The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was Bryant’s first choice for pilots. With nearly 20 years of experience, Zobayan was experienced enough to fly by instrument rating. He had reportedly logged more than 8,000 flight hours, and by all accounts, was a responsible and competent pilot. The weather that morning, however, was poor. According to reports, visibility was so low, due to dense fog, that the LAPD had grounded its own air support division. Regardless, Zobayan flew on, requesting special permission from air traffic control.

At 9:45 am the helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, about 20 miles from its destination. All nine people on board died. It could take months for investigators to offer an official reason for the crash, but many believe the weather and pilot error may have caused the crash.