The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others was flying through dangerously foggy conditions when it crashed, The Associated Press reports.
The conditions were so dangerous the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff’s department grounded their choppers, according to the AP.
The Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division spokesman Josh Rubenstein told the Los Angeles Times, “The weather situation did not meet our minimum standards for flying.”
Rubenstein added to the LA Times, the fog “was enough that we were not flying.” LAPD’s flight minimums are 2 miles of visibility and an 800-foot cloud ceiling, he said.
WHAT WE KNOW
At about 9:45 am on Sunday (Jan. 26) morning, the helicopter plunged into a steep hillside, causing debris to scatter over an area the size of a football field, killing all aboard, the AP reports.
The helicopter departed Santa Ana in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, shortly after 9 am, according to the AP. It circled around Interstate 5, near Glendale, and air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank and Van Nuys.
The AP reports that after holding up the helicopter for another aircraft, air traffic controllers cleared the Sikorsky S-76 to proceed north along Interstate 5 through Burbank before turning west to follow U.S. Route 101, the Ventura Highway.
Shortly after 9:40 am, it turned again and climbed to more than 2000 feet, the AP reports. According to data from Flightradar24, it then descended and crashed into the hillside at about 1400 feet.
Data showed it descended at a rate of more than 4000 feet per minute and when it struck the ground in Calabasas, the helicopter was flying at about 160 knots (184 mph), the AP reports.
The Washington Examiner reports, the pilot, Ara Zobayan, was told he was “too low” as he flew through thick fog moments before the crash.
"Two Echo X-ray, you are still too low for flight following at this time," the flight tower said, the Examiner reports, adding that the tail number of Bryant’s helicopter was N72EX.
A Calabasas resident who lived near the site of the crash reported hearing a “boom” at the time of the accident, the AP reports.
“It was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything,” Colin Storm said, the AP reports. “But then we heard some sputtering and then a boom.”
After the fog cleared, Storm said he could see smoke rising from the hillside in front of his home, the AP reports.
The LA Times reports witness Jerry Kocharian was standing outside the Church in the Canyon during coffee when he heard a helicopter that was flying unusually low and struggling.
“It [didn’t] sound right and it was real low. I saw it falling and spluttering. But it was hard to make out as it was so foggy,” Kocharian told the LA Times. The helicopter vanished into a cloud of fog and then there was a boom.
“There was a big fireball,” he told the LA Times. “No one could survive that.”
The cause of the crash was unknown, the AP reports, and the rugged terrain complicated efforts to recover the remains, the Los Angeles County medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas said.
Lucas estimated it would take at least a couple of days to complete that task before official identifications can be made, according to the AP.
“We will be doing our work thoroughly, quickly and with the utmost compassion,” Lucas said, the New York Times reports. “We’re doing everything we can to confirm identifications and give closure to the families involved.”
Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said, according to the AP, firefighters hiked in with medical equipment and hoses, and medical personnel rappelled to the site from a helicopter, but found no survivors.
“Our firefighters hiked into the accident site with their medical equipment and hose lines to extinguish the stubborn fire as it included the brush fire … and the helicopter,” Osby said during a news conference Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Times reports. “The fire also included magnesium, which is very hard for firefighters to extinguish because magnesium reacts with oxygen and water.”
Time reports, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, all nine people aboard the helicopter were killed. But pending official word from the coroner, he would not confirm the passengers’ identities.
According to the AP, among those that perished in the crash were John Altobelli, 56, the head baseball coach at Southern California’s Orange Coast College; his wife, Keri; and daughter, Alyssa, Gigi’s basketball teammate. Additionally, Christina Mauser, a girls basketball coach at a nearby private elementary school died in the crash.
Time reports that another teammate of Gigi’s, Payton Chester, and her mother Sarah were also killed in the crash along with the helicopter pilot, named in local reports as Ara Zobayan.
The New York Times reports that according to two people familiar with the document, the NBA sent confirmation of Bryant’s and Gianna’s deaths to all teams and league employees Sunday (Jan. 26) afternoon.
The pilot, Ara Zobayan, received his commercial pilot certificate in 2007, according to the FAA, CBS News reports.
According to federal aviation records, the Daily Mail reports, the 50-year-old was a licensed commercial helicopter of 12 years, certified flight instructor of two years and a ground instructor of 11 years.
He was also instrument rated, which means he was qualified to fly in fog, the federal aviation records also indicate.
On Sunday, he flew alone although an aviation source said, according to the Washington Examiner, that “most Sikorsky S-76s fly with two pilots.”
"Kobe’s helicopter is 29 years old, and most Sikorsky S-76s fly with two pilots. On Sunday, Kobe had just one pilot, who was likely flying on visual flight rules, rather than using instruments to monitor altitude," the source said, the Examiner reports.
"All the signs point to a [controlled flight into terrain], which is when an aircraft under the complete control of a pilot is inadvertently flown into the land, sea, or a building," the aviation source continued. "These accidents happen when the pilot loses situational awareness. The crash site also points to this; given how the debris is scattered, it looks like they went nose first into the mountain."
CNN reports that according to an air traffic control conversation with the pilot, the helicopter was operating under “special visual flight rules.”
A SVFR clearance allows a pilot to fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for standard visual flight rules (VFR), CNN reports.
"Maintain special VFR at or below 2,500" the pilot confirmed to the controller, CNN reports.
New York Magazine reports that as an alternative, Zobayan could have contacted air traffic controllers and switched to “Instrument Flight Rules,” or IFR, that would have allowed him to climb up through the clouds.
Controllers would have given him a series of waypoints to follow that would keep him well clear of terrain, dangerous weather, and other aircraft, New York Magazine reports.
However, flying IFR is time-consuming and constrains pilots to following the directions of controllers, New York Magazine reports.
City University of New York assistant professor of aviation, Paul Cline, told New York Magazine, “Southern California airspace is extremely busy, and they might tell you to wait an hour. You’re just one of many waiting in line, and it doesn’t matter if you’re Kobe Bryant.”
So, instead, the helicopter continued under visual flight rules, New York Magazine reports.
CNN also reports that Zobayan asked for “flight following,” a service in which controllers are in regular contract with an aircraft.
The helicopter, a twin-engine Sikorsky S-76, was built in 1991 and was most recently registered to Island Express Holding Corp. according to the FAA, CNN reports.
Time reports that model helicopter is used as a search and rescue helicopter, for medical evacuations and 10 countries employ it to transport their head of state. A newer model of the S-76 helicopter is used to fly Queen Elizabeth II and other royals.
Bryant’s helicopter, which was previously owned by the state of Illinois from 2007 to 2015, is roughly $13 million and marketed as “executive helicopter” for personal travel, catering to “corporate executives and heads of state,” the Daily Beast reports.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are investigating the cause of the crash, Time reports.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the FBI is also assisting in the probe, which is standard practice.
"It's a logistical nightmare in a sense because the crash site itself is not easily accessible," County Sheriff Villanueva said, CNN reports.
The NTSB database does not show any prior incidents or accidents for the aircraft, the LA Times reports.
According to the California Secretary of State's business database the helicopter was registered to the Fillmore-based Island Express Holding Corp, and the helicopter’s manufacturer is Sikorsky.
Time reports Sikorsky said in a statement: “We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by today’s Sikorsky S-76B accident in Calabasas, California. We have been in contact with the NTSB and stand ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customers. Safety is our top priority; if there are any actionable findings from the investigation, we will inform our S-76 customers.”
Kurt Deetz, a pilot who used to fly Bryant in the chopper, said the crash was more likely caused by bad weather than engine or mechanical issues, the AP reports.
Deetz told the Los Angeles Times, “The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn’t happen.”
According to two law enforcement officials who spoke to the New York Times on condition of anonymity, Bryant was on his way to the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif. to coach his daughter when the helicopter crashed.
The New York Times reports the academy was hosting the Mamba Cup Tournament Series, a series of tournaments for boys and girls basketball teams from the third through eighth grades. All the games were canceled after the new of Bryant’s death became public.
Randi Mayem Singer, described as a screenwriter on her Twitter page, shared a video, writing, “The mamba academy getting news of Kobe. This is soul crushing. Love your loved ones.”
An impromptu memorial took place outside the academy with fans laying flowers and lighting candles, the New York Times reports.
(Photo: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
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