What Is a FAA Part 135 Operator?
In the wake of the helicopter crash that took the lives of former LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant and 8 others, there has been considerable news coverage of the fact that the helicopter was owned and operated by Island Express, a “Part 135” aircraft operator. However, these same news reports often fail to describe what a Part 135 operator actually is. In today’s post the aircraft accident injury lawyer at The Doan Law Firm will explain the duties and responsibilities of aircraft operators under Part 135 of the Federal Aviation Administration regulations. He will then explain how such operators may be held liable for accidents involving their aircraft.
Part 135 covers businesses that operate aircraft that conduct unscheduled flights that carry passengers and/or cargo “for hire.” This includes aircraft leasing companies, sightseeing flights, and charter flights. Under Part 135, these providers are strictly regulated regarding the types of aircraft they are licensed to operate, the types of cargo they are allowed to carry, and the types of airports they are allowed to use as both the point of departure and as a destination. Perhaps most importantly, Part 135 prohibits flight operations into weather conditions that would require some part of a flight to be conducted under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) unless the business is specifically authorized by the FAA to do so, the aircraft is equipped with the necessary flight instruments, and the pilot in command is qualified for flight into instrument flight conditions. If a Part 135 operator, or an employee of such an operator, fails to adhere to Part 135 regulations they can run afoul of the FAA and, if an accident occurs, could be found liable for any damages related to the accident.
Although it is far too early for all the facts of the Kobe Bryant accident to have been determined, published reports suggest the following chain of events:
1. When the helicopter departed its base, weather conditions at its departure airport were acceptable for Visual Flight Rules (VFR) operations. However, weather conditions enroute to the flight’s destination were not acceptable for VFR flight.
Weather conditions over Los Angeles and its adjacent suburbs were such that the helicopter’s pilot departed from the expected route in order to take advantage of air traffic controllers’ instructions from two suburban airports. Since the presence of poor enroute weather conditions were known, or should have been known prior to departure, the pilots decision to fly into known adverse weather conditions appears to have been questionable.
2. After encountering poor weather conditions, the pilot elected to continue the flight rather than return to base or request a landing at an alternate airport.
As weather conditions deteriorated, the pilot elected to continue the flight under “Special” VFR conditions that would have allowed him to follow reference points on the ground. While this could be seen as an option, published reports suggest that the pilot as not able to remain within conditions that would have permitted Special VFR flight. Once again, this decision appears to have been questionable.
3. While supposedly flying in Special VFR conditions, the aircraft impacted the ground in the elevated terrain northwest of Los Angeles.
The most common causes of “controlled flight into terrain” are pilot error (including disorientation), instrument failure, and loss of aircraft power. Although there was an early report that the helicopter’s engine was heard to be “sputtering” moments prior to impact, later reports have failed to mention this observation. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will, of course, determine the most likely cause of this accident, but images of the crash site suggest the helicopter impacted the ground in a “nose-down” position. Given that the helicopter had dual engines, a total loss of power in flight appears to have been unlikely. Once again, the pilot’s decision to fly in less-than-acceptable weather conditions appears to have been a major factor in the accident.
Although this post has discussed what is publicly known regarding the Kobe Bryant accident and is not an official account, the available information seems to indicate that the aircraft’s owner (Island Express) could be seen as liable because:
FAA Part 135 regulations prohibit flight operations in known or suspected IFR conditions.
The pilot, an employee of a Part 135-regulated operator, either failed to obtain a weather report that would have alerted him to the presence of poor weather conditions or decided to ignore such a report.
Once he encountered deteriorating weather conditions, the pilot elected to continue the flight instead of returning to the departure airport or landing at another facility.
Any of the above actions could be seen as evidence of negligence or carelessness by the pilot involved and, by legal extension, negligence on the part of the pilot’s employer on the grounds of failure to properly supervise the pilot. Unfortunately, similar errors in judgment are frequently cited in other aircraft accidents.
If you have lost a family member in an aviation accident, we invite you to contact the aviation accident lawyer at The Doan Law Firm to arrange a free review of the facts in your accident case and a discussion of the legal options that may be available to you.
When you contact our firm your case review and consultation with our aviation accident lawyer are always free and do not obligate you to hire us as your legal counsel. Should you decide that a lawsuit is in order, and that you would like for us to represent you in court, we are willing to assume full responsibility for all aspects of preparing your case for trial in exchange for a percentage of the final settlement we are prepared to win for you.