02/10/2020

Details about the helicopter crash that killed the Lakers star and eight others emerged through air-traffic communications and flight data

The helicopter that chauffeured
Kobe Bryant
from his Orange County home to the Los Angeles area departed Santa Ana-John Wayne Airport shortly after 9 a.m. on a foggy Sunday morning with nine people aboard. Its destination was the Camarillo Airport, northwest of Los Angeles, near Mr. Bryants sports academy.It was supposed to be the kind of routine flight that Mr. Bryant, who used a helicopter like a car, had made hundreds of times in his life.
But with a deep marine layer and areas of dense fog in the region, federal weather forecasters had advised the aviation community of the need for instrument flight rules and that typical visual flight rules probably wouldnt apply. Air-traffic controllers in Burbank told the aircraft to maintain special visual flight rules at or below 2,500 feet, according to recordings of tower communications.
Kobe Bryant, the former Los Angeles Lakers superstar and one of the greatest players in National Basketball Association history, died in a helicopter crash on Sunday. He was 41 years old. Photo: Associated Press
After circling for roughly 12 minutes mid-flight while waiting for a clearance from air-traffic controllers, the helicopter climbed to about 2,300 feet to avoid a cloud layer, but then soon started a descending left turn, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
A few minutes later, the helicopter crashed in mountainous terrain at an altitude of roughly 1,085 feet above sea level near Calabasas, Calif., killing Mr. Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.
The NTSB reported the chopper didnt carry either a cockpit voice recorder or a flight-data recorder. But Jennifer Homendy, the board member on scene, told reporters Monday she was confident investigators would be able to definitively determine what happened based on the wreckage, which spanned 500 to 600 feet.
It was a pretty devastating accident scene, Ms. Homendy said.
It is too early to eliminate mechanical and other factors, according to safety experts, and Ms. Homendy said were not just focusing on weather. But much of Mondays news conferenceincluding the NTSBs request to residents to provide photos of Sundays dense fog around the crash sitehighlighted poor visibility and questions about the pilots decision to continue the flight.
Mr. Bryant spent countless hours aboard this helicopter before his tragic death. He began exploring the possibility of getting to work by helicopter around 2006, intrigued by the prospect of turning a painful, unpredictable drive into a guaranteed 15-minute trip. It wasnt long before he was commuting in a copter. He beat traffic and NBA teams by air.
Mr. Bryant liked the idea of lifting weights in the morning, taking his children to school, flying to Los Angeles Lakers practice and returning to his Newport Beach home in time to meet them in the carpool line. I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft but not compromise family time, he once said.
His chopper quickly became part of his mystiqueonly Kobe Bryant would take a helicopter to his officeand the game-day routine that allowed him to become one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
Mr. Bryant would drive to John Wayne Airport, draw the curtain for privacy and soar over everyone on his way to a heliport in downtown Los Angeles, said
Kurt Deetz,
a former Island Express pilot who often flew him to games. For his final NBA game in 2016, the helicopter Mr. Bryant used was wrapped in black and dressed with his personal logo. The helicopters exterior was meant to evoke the skin of a snake in a nod to the Black Mamba, the nickname that Mr. Bryant once gave himself. He called his ride the Mamba Chopper.
When he climbed into the helicopter on Sunday morning, Mr. Bryant was on his way to another basketball game: his daughters.
He was reportedly headed to his Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park with seven other passengers, including Gianna, and John, Keri and
Alyssa Altobelli.
An instrument-rated commercial pilot and flight instructor who has been identified as
Ara Zobayan
was at the controls of the helicopter. Mr. Zobayan was the same pilot who had taken Mr. Bryant to his final Lakers game, Mr. Deetz said.
But there were questions about whether they should have been in the air on Sunday. In a forecast discussion published early that morning, the local National Weather Service office warned of a deep marine layer, low clouds and dense fog that could affect aviation conditions.
Mr. Zobayan was an experienced pilot deeply familiar with the Los Angeles area, Mr. Deetz said. A spokeswoman for the NTSB said the pilot had 8,200 hours of flight time and the agency was requesting information about potential issues with his record as part of its probe. On a day with lousy weather and tricky conditions, Mr. Deetz said, the only people in the air would have been professionals like Mr. Zobayan. But even helicopter pilots who are comfortable in that environment are challenged in uncertain conditions.
Weve all been there, Mr. Deetz said. I dont care if youve got 100 hours or 10,000 hours. It can happen to anyone.
To combat those hazards, the industry has devised pilot-education and training programs urging flight crews to land quickly at the first hint of weather or mechanical problems. Helicopter Association International, the industrys leading trade group, promotes an initiative called Land & Live that warns crews to make precautionary landings when things change during a flight and pilots begin to reassess the wisdom of their original plans.
This particular helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76B owned by Island Express Holding Corp., is a mainstay of business and VIP transportation with more than 230 registered in the U.S., accounting for about 2% of the nationwide fleet, according to 2019 FAA statistics.
Flight records show this helicopter had made the same trip on Saturday to Camarillo, a small airport 20 minutes away from the Mamba Sports Academy, which is about 90 miles from the Bryant home and could take more than two hours in Southern California traffic. The initial flight path on Sunday was almost exactly the same as Saturdays. But about 10 minutes into the flight, around 9:17 a.m., the traffic controllers at Hollywood Burbank Airport made contact with the helicopter carrying Mr. Bryant, according to a recording of the control tower.
You can expect a few minutes, the controller said after referring to N72EX, the choppers tail number. Ive got another aircraft inbound on the final.
Mr. Zobayan said he would hold around downtown Glendale. This was unusual. In the recent flights this helicopter made between John Wayne and Camarillo, the copter had never veered as far north as Glendale, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of flight-tracking data.
You need to get to Van Nuys?
Negative. Camarillo.
Roger in, Van Nuys is also IFR, the pilot said, referring to flight rules where pilots must use instruments during cruise and to assist during takeoff or landing because of poor visibility. The pilot would have had to take the extra step of filing a specific flight plan with the FAA to fly under instrument rules.
That morning, the National Weather Service had issued a forecast discussion noting a deep marine layer that would affect flying conditions, including around the Los Angeles and Burbank airports. In Burbank, the forecast noted, the need for instrument flight rules was expected to improve to marginal visual flight rules, with those conditions potentially lingering for at least several hours.
Life and Career in Photos
The helicopter hovered over Glendale for about 20 minutes, circling about five times, before a controller in the Burbank tower asked Mr. Zobayan if he wanted to follow the State Route 118 freeway.
118, and then well loop around Van Nuys to catch the 101, Mr. Zobayan said.
Burbank tower instructed Mr. Zobayan to continue following Interstate 5 to hit the 118 as the flight was picked up by the Van Nuys tower. The helicopter was flying at 1,400 feet.
Can we start, go ahead, and start turning to the southwest for 101? Mr. Zobayan said.
The flight was meant to be passed to another Southern California air-traffic controller who would monitor its progress, but Mr. Zobayan was informed that couldnt be done immediately because the helicopters low altitude caused to drop off the radar. State intentions, the controller requested. Youre still too low level for flight following at this time.
Local authorities received an emergency call at 9:47 a.m. alerting them to a brush fire in the hills of Calabasas. It had been about 41 minutes since the helicopter took off. The flight the day before had lasted 30 minutes.
—Andy Pasztor and Tom McGinty contributed to this article.
Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com and Erin Ailworth at Erin.Ailworth@wsj.com
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