AOPA applauds the basic intent of a New York bill that would impose helicopter equipage requirements in the interest of safety, but urges state lawmakers everywhere to resist legislating aviation locally for a few very good reasons.
New York State Sen. Jamaal T. Bailey (D-36th District) introduced a bill on January 30 that would require helicopters to be equipped with terrain awareness and warning systems, as well as cockpit voice and flight data recorders, after a Sikorsky S–76B crashed in Calabasas, California, on January 26, killing nine people including basketball legend Kobe Bryant. Details of the ongoing NTSB investigation released to date strongly suggest that poor visibility and loss of situational awareness by pilot Ara Zobayan likely played a role in the tragedy.
Collins explained the chaotic consequences of legislating aviation at the state level, and the vital role that more than 200,000 registered aircraft play in the transportation of people and cargo:
“If each state established its own equipment requirement, interstate air commerce and travel would be severely impacted as aircraft operators attempted to comply with each state’s requirement,” Collins wrote. “We understand the intent of S.7611 but it is clear the bill as written violates the U.S. Constitution.”
Fatal accidents involving high-profile celebrities inevitably provoke irresistible urges to figure out what happened and how to make sure it does not happen again. However, as AOPA Air Safety Institute Executive Director Richard McSpadden explains in a recent AOPA Pilot column, “the root cause of an accident can be quite different than what may seem obvious,” and waiting for the facts to become known is “a sensible posture that has kept us (and some public agencies) from acting on erroneous theories with ineffective or even counterproductive remedies.”
McSpadden noted that enough is now known to deduce that the accident in question was most likely precipitated by the pilot’s spatial disorientation, going on to detail “several lessons from this tragedy that “will remain relevant, regardless of additional findings”—all of which have to do with pilot training and decision making.
It is not yet clear that terrain awareness and warning equipment would have prevented the accident that prompted the legislation: Based on the facts publicly known, it is possible that the situation was already beyond recovery by the time a terrain alert would have been triggered. The pilot’s loss of situational awareness might have involved optical illusions and mistaken assumptions, or risks such as false horizons and dense fog that are particular to flying at low altitude in mountainous terrain near an ocean. Whatever conclusions are borne out by the investigation of any particular accident, assessing whether the cost of a government mandate is justified by safety benefits is a complex task that requires expertise beyond what a state legislature can be expected to bring to bear.
“AOPA is committed to ensuring the safety, future viability, and development of general aviation as an integral part of a national transportation system,” Collins concluded. “We welcome any opportunity to work with your office on ways to enhance the aviation industry in New York and thank you for consideration of our concerns.”