The company that owns the helicopter involved in the crash that killed Philadelphia native Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others has suspended operations, as the investigation into the crash remains ongoing and Lower Merion basketball plans a tribute for the NBA star.
Investigators are looking into the cause of the crash, as well as the history and certifications of Island Express Helicopters, which owned the Sikorsky S-76B that crashed and burst into flames on a Calabasas, Calif., hillside Sunday morning, killing all nine people aboard.
Island Express Helicopters suspended all services indefinitely in the wake of the incident, according to a statement from the company released Thursday.
“The shock of the accident affected all staff, and management decided that service would be suspended until such time as it was deemed appropriate for staff and customers,” Island Express said.
Previously, the company had advertised the Sikorsky S-76B as a premium aircraft, calling it “the most-trusted name in helicopters,” the Los Angeles Times reports. Bryant had reportedly flown in the company’s model of the craft, which was built in 1991, regularly.
Lower Merion High School’s varsity basketball teams will pay tribute to Bryant, an alumnus of the school, between games this weekend, the Lower Merion School District has announced. The tribute will take place at the school’s Kobe Bryant Gymnasium at 1 p.m. Saturday, and will be open to members of the public who have purchased tickets to attend.
A limited number of public tickets were available Friday, but quickly sold out.
In addition to Saturday’s tribute, LMHS has opened its school store to the public online. There, fans can purchase LMHS basketball merchandise, which is being sold at cost because the school does not intend to “profit in any way from the tragic deaths of our alumnus, Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others,” according to a statement from the school district.
The store will take online orders through Feb. 16, with plans to reopen for two weeks in March if there is enough demand.
The company was not cleared to operate in the foggy, low-visibility weather conditions reported in the Calabasas area on Sunday, the New York Times reports. Island Express, sources said, was limited under an operating certification from the Federal Aviation Administration that kept pilots to flying under so-called “visual flight rules,” which involve a minimum of three miles of visibility and a cloud ceiling of at least 1,000 feet in order to allow pilots to navigate flights visually.
Pilot Ara Zobayan, who was also killed in the crash Sunday, was certified to fly in poor-visibility conditions using FAA-approved instruments aboard the craft. However, because of the limitations placed on Island Express, Zobayan did not have the legal authority to navigate using those instruments, according to the New York Times.
The visual flight rules placed on Island Express are common in Southern California, which typically has clear weather and is easily navigable, the Times reports. The additional certification — which no other local charter companies maintain — would require additional training, equipment, and insurance costs.
U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat from the Los Angeles area, is now calling on the FAA to increase helicopter safety regulations with a requirement for terrain-alarm systems aboard aircrafts, the Los Angeles Times reports. The helicopter that crashed Sunday was not required to be equipped with such a system.
Sherman introduced the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act on Thursday, which would require helicopters to be “equipped with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System” at a cost ranging from $25,000 to $40,000, according to a statement. The act would also create a commission on helicopter safety that would report to Congress regarding “best practices for helicopters in cases of low visibility.”
The National Transportation Safety Board had recommended that helicopters carrying six or more passengers be equipped with such a system 16 years ago, the Los Angeles Times reports. An NTSB investigator said the FAA “failed to act” on the proposal, an evaluation the agency disputes, saying it requires the systems aboard helicopters serving as air ambulances.
Officials previously announced that the bodies of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven others were recovered from the crash site by Monday night. Funeral plans for the Bryants have not yet been announced.
“There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now,” Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, said Wednesday in her first public comments since the crash. “I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved.”