On the morning of Sunday, Jan. 26, a helicopter carrying basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people crashed into a hillside in thick fog in Calabasas, California, the Los Angeles Times and other outlets report. Everyone on board the helicopter was killed, and the crash ignited a small brush fire in the area. An investigation has begun into what caused the incident.
According to the Times, the helicopter involved in the crash was a Sikorsky S-76B, tail number N72EX, and Bryant had flown in it many times before, including a special flight out of downtown L.A. when he retired in 2016. The chopper was owned by Island Express Holding Corp., which operates a fleet of helicopters for trips to Catalina Island and private flights, and it was built in 1991. The S-76B is a popular model and has a solid safety record—among the lowest rate of fatal crashes of all major civilian helicopters in the United States, according to documents reviewed by the Times.
Although the investigation into the cause of the crash has just started, an Island Express pilot interviewed by the Times said it’s likely that the foggy, low-visibility conditions led to the accident, rather than a mechanical failure. Based on analysis of the crash site and the chopper’s flight path, the pilot estimated the aircraft was flying at about 160 m.p.h. when it hit the ground.
If anyone on board survived the impact, leaking fuel would have been the next major concern. A September 2018 Men’s Journal investigation of helicopter crashes among emergency responders found that many choppers in civilian use lack impact-resistant fuel systems. When a helicopter crashes, vulnerable fuel lines and tanks can puncture or sever, spewing fuel on the occupants that can ignite and cause catastrophic burns and death. The military addressed this issue by requiring crash-proof fuel systems in its helicopters starting in the 1970s. But in the civilian sector, progress has been much slower.
Studies in the 1980s showed that passengers were dying in survivable helicopter crashes because of fires ignited from leaking fuel. That led the FAA to pass regulations in 1989 and 1994 requiring crashworthy systems, but there’s a big loophole: The rules only apply to new rotorcraft designs—they don’t affect older models or new examples of previously certified designs. That means many helicopters aren’t subject to the laws. As of 2014, NTSB data shows that just 15 percent of choppers built since 1994 have crash-resistant fuel systems.
The crash on Sunday started a quarter-acre brush fire, and it’s probable that spilled fuel played a part in starting it. According to the Island Express pilot, Bryant’s helicopter held around 800 pounds of fuel.
“That’s enough to start a pretty big fire,” he told the Times.
Check out our full report on helicopter fuel tanks here, and stay tuned for more coverage as the investigation in California continues.
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