Aircraft Accidents and Kobe Bryant

A Flight Data Recorder

“Emotions are the enemy of Truth.” You might expect that to be a Star Trek quote, a Vulcan adage to explain away a vengeful alien’s demise, but it is not. Emotions are the antithesis of what all accident investigatory groups, e.g. the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), are supposed to be about. Mister Spock’s lack of emotions shows how investigators should view all accident investigations – dispassionately. Body counts – though tragic – have nothing to do with WHY an aircraft crashes. They never have.

On January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant was killed when the helicopter he was in crashed, accident number DCA20MA059. The helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76B, was owned and operated by Island Express Helicopters, a Code of Federal Regulations, Part 135 operator. The helicopter impacted terrain. The accident investigation continues; the root cause is still undetermined.

All the accident’s victims should be mourned. The loss of life is always tragic and should be recognized. However, Mister Bryant’s name should be separated from accident investigation DCA20MA059. His involvement is the only reason the NTSB dedicated vast resources to the investigation. But investigatory agencies tend to become mired in the emotional issues. DCA20MA059 is an investigation. The NTSB should concentrate on the accident’s causes, not the tragic loss of life. To do otherwise could be perceived as exploiting Kobe Bryant’s celebrity – and tragedy – to push an agenda.

In a Saturday, June 6, 2020, article titled: “NTSB Urges Helicopter Makers to Install Black Boxes Months After Kobe Bryant Accident”, Fox News’s Vandana Rambaran said, “In an unprecedented move Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board directly urged six of the largest helicopter manufacturers to install black boxes that provide information in a crash, like the one that killed NBA star Kobe Bryant.” First, this is not unprecedented; investigative agencies have been circumventing oversight agencies, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), for years. The NTSB has used different venues to avoid regulatory challenges, e.g. accident hearings, sunshine meetings, the media and, of course, Congressional Hearings. These attempts are silly. Why? Because the NTSB lacks the aviation experience to second guess the FAA’s authority in regulatory, engineering and technical knowledge.

The flight data recorder (FDR) is viable equipment on any aircraft, assuming, that is, if it is correctly interrogated. On December 18, 2003, a Líneas Aéreas de Suramericanas (LAS) DC-9 crashed in Mitu, Colombia. This DC-9 had an early generation FDR system, the most basic FDR with minimal sensors. The Colombian government asked the NTSB to read the FDR data, which the NTSB analyzed, along with the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR). The NTSB interrogator ‘discovered’ that the stabilizer trim cables jammed and caused the accident. But this was inaccurate. What really happened was the cargo floor failed; the broken floor pinned both the engines’ and ALL the flight control cables, not just the stabilizer trim. The NTSB did not discover the accident’s true root cause before meeting with the Colombian officials because the inexperienced NTSB interrogator misread the rudimentary FDR’s data.

How did the NTSB misread the LAS FDR data? Because the NTSB hired only one experienced investigator who worked commercial airliners, e.g. the DC-9. That person, who was at the meeting with the Colombian officials, pointed out the interrogation error, thus embarrassing the NTSB’s Director of Aviation Safety. The NTSB interrogator did not ask anyone to assist him in reading the FDR data. This is an important point; a common, rudimentary FDR system, used by airlines, could not be interrogated by the NTSB, because there was no one there who understood the DC-9’s sensors or cable system.

What does this have to do with helicopter accident, DCA20MA059? A fixed wing aircraft has sensors for its FDR located all throughout the airframe, from the nose gear to the upper rudder; from one wing tip to the other wing tip. A fixed wing aircraft uses air speed to generate lift over its wings, aka Airfoils.

However, a helicopter creates its own lift with rotation of the main rotor; the main rotor blades are the airfoils. There are no flight controls on the blades because the lift is manipulated by the changing angle of each blade. Since there are no flight control panels, there are no spoiler, aileron, flap, rudder, elevator, tab or ground spoiler sensors. Data on a helicopter is simplified, localized; all data-producing components are located near the pilot; important sensors’ data can be downloaded from the pilots’ gauge programs, e.g. oil pressure, attitude, bank angle, fuel quantity, transmission rotations, from sensors in the engine(s), the controls for the main rotor and the tail rotor.

And this is where the point of the LAS accident comes into play. The NTSB’s Director of Aviation Safety recently stated, “The more information we have, the better we can understand not only the circumstances of a crash, but what can be done to prevent future accidents.” Precisely! This is a true statement. It also underlines what the NTSB doesn’t do, namely hire investigators with specific talents. If the NTSB is truly concerned with accurately determining Root Causes of helicopter accidents, as they should; if the NTSB wants to become skilled in investigating helicopter accidents, as they must; they only need to follow one simple solution: HIRE … MORE … HELICOPTER … EXPERIENCED … INVESTIGATORS. That is all. Problem solved.

When I worked at the NTSB, there was only one investigator – since retired – who had helicopter experience. Since then, it appears the NTSB has hired only ONE investigator with helicopter expertise – just ONE. What does this mean? The NTSB has only one person qualified to investigate helicopter accidents. Only one person who can help interrogate a helicopter FDR.

The ‘lone helicopter investigator’ raises another issue. How has the NTSB been investigating helicopter accidents when they never hired helicopter-experienced people to interpret the data? How did these people (accustomed to investigating fixed wing accidents) determine if Ground Resonance or Retreating Blade Stall occurred? Were these accidents investigated correctly?

Per the NTSB’s website, the NTSB stated, “In addition to asking manufacturers to install crash-resistant recorders on newly built helicopters, the NTSB also asked them to provide a means to retrofit their helicopters with crash-resistant systems capable of recording flight data, cockpit audio and images [Italics added] on their helicopters not already so equipped.” And there is the rub. Would helicopter safety be improved by installing cameras and voice recorders?  

As per the NTSB update for DCA20MA059, “The pilot [singular] and eight passengers were fatally injured and … forces and fire.” Let us be clear – there was only ONE pilot. In almost all emergency medical helicopters, police helicopters, news helicopters, traffic helicopters and Part 135 commuter helicopters, there is only ONE pilot. In an emergency, there would be no discussions. Single pilots do not talk to themselves. A pilot would not give a play-by-play of the emergency, stating what each gauge reads. The pilot would not announce what he is doing. There would be no intelligible words to record.

Then what would a helicopter CVR capture? Passengers screaming? Equipment being tossed around? The thumping of the main rotor or engine(s) drowning out all conversation. Let us be clear, Cockpit Voice Recorders are just that: COCKPIT voice recorders. They are designed to record voices and noises INSIDE an enclosed cockpit compartment. Helicopters do not have enclosed cockpits. A CVR is designed to capture pilot conversations. Passenger and flight attendant conversations are not meant for the CVR.

Per the Rambaran article, “The FAA has failed to act on an NTSB recommendation that turbine-powered helicopters record data, audio and images during flight, so the safety board instead reached out to Sikorsky, Airbus Helicopters, Bell, Leonardo, MD Helicopters and Robinson.” First, the FAA has not failed at anything. Second, Ms. Rambaran does not understand that CVR audio would bring ZERO results to an accident investigation. Cameras, on the other hand, make the emergency worse. How?

Imagine Ms. Rambaran – or any professional – having someone video her every … single … action while she is working, e.g. driving to a story; filming her while she ‘gets’ her story; recording every time she drove over the speed limit or rolled through a stop sign; stopping for lunch (how long did she take?); watching her chew her food; filming over her shoulder while she types her story; second-guessing her use of spell check; checking if she used opinions or facts in her news story. Every choice she makes is brutally scrutinized; every decision, interrogated. And … she knows her actions will be questioned.

Cameras add to a pilot’s stress and do not increase safety. Where would one put the camera? Facing the pilot? Above? Below? To the side? Focus on the instruments? Focus on the controls? Looking out the window? Is it focused for inside or outside of the helicopter? Do you use color film?

Ms. Rambaran continues: “The FAA has, in the past, resisted mandating crash-resistant recorder systems because it could not calculate a cost-benefit ratio.” This is true. Helicopter cameras and CVRs are a financial extravagance; that’s a fact. Besides, a change to the Federal Aviation Regulations for helicopter CVRs would take five years and cost over five million dollars for CVRs that will never increase safety.

My condolences to Kobe Bryant’s family and to the families of those who lost loved ones in that accident. The NTSB should steer away from the emotional side of accidents, focus on real problem-solving. They need to use tools that work. They must hire only qualified, experienced investigators; not waste time and money on agendas that amount to irrelevant technology that does nothing for safety.

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