LOS ANGELES — In the years before the helicopter crash that killed the basketball legend Kobe Bryant and eight other people, the company operating the aircraft, Island Express Helicopters, had a series of disputes over its safety practices, according to federal accident reports and a former federal safety inspector.
The tensions first came to the attention of federal investigators in 2008, when a fatal accident involving an Island Express helicopter revealed disagreements that had been playing out for years behind the scenes. A Federal Aviation Administration operations inspector assigned to oversee the company, then under a previous owner, had been pushing for more stringent safety practices, according to federal records. The company’s president at the time pushed back, asking the FAA to assign a different inspector.
The inspector, Gary Lackey, who agreed to step aside, said he was concerned that the company seemed unwilling to spend the money necessary to improve safety beyond what was minimally required.
“Everything that involves safety usually involves money also,” Lackey, who is now retired, said in an interview. “I think they were trying to cut corners.”
Before the tragedy involving Bryant, Island Express had four crashes since 1985 that damaged or destroyed helicopters, all under the company’s previous management, according to records.
Tensions over the company’s safety culture simmered even after the 2008 crash as the company came under new management several years later, according to people involved in the discussions.
The FAA recorded an additional “incident” in the summer of 2018, when two Island Express helicopters were started up too close to one another, causing significant damage to the blades on both aircraft.
As recently as 2017, Kurt Deetz, a pilot and former safety manager at Island Express, resigned from his safety responsibilities, he said, over “differences of opinion” about how the company’s safety management system should be run.
It is not known what caused last month’s crash. Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said they are looking at a range of potential issues, ranging from weather to mechanical problems. A key question is whether the Island Express pilot attempted to fly into thickening clouds and fog; NTSB investigators have asked for the public’s help in gathering photographs of weather conditions near the scene of the crash.
Island Express’ general counsel, Teri Elizabeth Neville, declined to comment in detail until after investigators release their findings on the crash. In a telephone interview this week, Neville said she was not aware of disputes with safety officials and noted that the company’s four crashes happened before the current management took over. She declined to say when that was, but state records and the company’s website suggest it was in 2012 or 2013.
Lackey, who was the FAA’s point person for Island Express off and on during his 17 years at the agency, said the tensions between him and the company’s management began sometime around 2005, and NTSB records show that he issued warning letters to the company.
The records also show that the company’s former owner, John Moore, pushed back against Lackey’s efforts — in particular, his recommendations to tighten safety procedures on refueling, operating rotors when passengers were boarding, and operations at a helipad in San Pedro, California, that Lackey felt were unsafe. The company also protested when Lackey failed a pilot on a proficiency check.
Discussions over flying in bad weather came up with all helicopter companies, Lackey said. Though federal regulations allow helicopter flights in relatively low visibility, given their ability to fly very slowly when necessary, Lackey said he urged charter operators to consider the risks of doing so and advised them in such cases to land the aircraft and wait for the weather to clear.
He was aware that companies had to balance safety with the need to complete the jobs they were hired to do, he said, and those that did not deliver their customers on time might find their clients going to another operator.
Island Express was one of the few companies to go to Lackey’s managers to challenge his oversight, he said. After a series of clashes, the FAA in 2008 assigned a new principal operations inspector for the company, records show.
“When John came in and said he wanted a new POI, I said, ‘Fine, you can have somebody else,’” Lackey said, referring to Moore. Lackey said he felt the new person would also be vigilant about safety and that it was an opportunity to reset what had become a contentious relationship.
In a statement, the FAA said it could not comment on an individual case, but that it was not uncommon to periodically rotate inspectors to new assignments. “All aviation safety inspectors are qualified to perform the oversight work they are assigned,” the statement said.
Lackey said he was assigned once again to oversee Island Express in subsequent years and found that Moore seemed more willing to accept FAA safety requests. The relationship improved, Lackey said, until new owners and managers took over at Island Express.
After that, Lackey said, some of the old conflicts began to reemerge. Once again, the company argued for a different inspector, but this time, Lackey said, he did not recall a change taking place in response to the request.
Accident and aviation experts said that tensions between aircraft companies and local FAA inspectors are not uncommon. But short of gross incompetence on the part of the inspector, they said, it is highly unusual for an inspector to be replaced at the suggestion of a regulated company. In his interview with NTSB investigators after the 2008 crash, Moore did not raise any issues about Lackey’s competence, acknowledging that the inspector “knows his stuff.”
Jeff Guzzetti, a former NTSB and FAA accident investigator, said that “a personality clash between an operator and an inspector” is not uncommon.
“It’s less frequent that an operator would hold sway over the FAA,” he said. “It would have to be something that rises to the level of getting the attention of upper FAA management to say, ‘Let’s get this inspector off and get another inspector.’”
Moore did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Deetz, the former safety manager who also flew Bryant as a pilot for Island Express, said that proactively managing safety within the company had been part of his job.
He said he established safety protocols for the company and convened a quarterly meeting with pilots and maintenance employees to discuss safety issues. But he said it was the company’s owners who usually dealt directly with the FAA, and he was unaware of any disputes with federal regulators during his time at the company.
Deetz declined to elaborate on the specific dispute with company management that prompted him to resign from his position as safety manager sometime in 2017. “It all goes back to culture,” he said. “There is window-dressing safety, and there is real, actual, get-your-hands-dirty safety culture.”
He later left the company altogether to take a pilot position with a competitor and now flies air ambulances in Arizona.
Most of the company’s previous crashes — a total of four since 1982 — involved mechanical failures, federal records show.
In the 2008 accident, a turbine engine blade failed during an approach to Catalina Island near Los Angeles, leading to a rapid plunge and a crash into the ground that killed three people and injured three others.
In 1999, in the same area, a helicopter with seven people on board crashed and slid down a hill, striking some trees and rolling over after an engine failure caused by a loose pneumatic fitting. The crash resulted in mostly minor injuries.
In 1989, another incident with minor injuries occurred when an engine failed over the ocean because of a worn fuel pump assembly. The pilot was able to set the craft down with the help of emergency floats.
In 1985, an Island Express helicopter collided with another helicopter, an accident that investigators found was probably a result of “the inadequate visual lookout of both pilots.” One person was killed and 11 others were injured.
In the most recent incident, in 2018, two of the company’s Sikorsky S-76 helicopters were parked next to each other at Long Beach Airport for a photo shoot. When pilots started the engines, the drooping rotors straightened, and their blades began colliding. All six blades were damaged, an FAA report says, “and Island Express Helicopters altered their parking plan to no longer park two S-76 aircraft next to each other.”
Guzzetti, the former federal accident investigator, said the 2018 incident was of more concern than it might initially appear. “This one is recent and it’s operational,” he said. “It’s an indicator of inadequate safety culture.”
But John Cox, an accident investigator and the head of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consulting firm, said it was hard to determine any pattern in the company’s overall record. The previous crashes, he said, occurred over a long time period and many of them involved equipment failures, not operational ones.
“It could be construed as a red flag to have this many accidents for the same operator,” Cox said. “But you have to look more deeply as to when those accidents happened, over what period of time.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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