Newsletter: The biggest questions in the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash investigation

Kobe Bryant mural
Martin Yan stands in front of a mural with Kobe Bryant on it in Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Jan. 29, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

As the public outpouring of grief over a helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others continues, federal officials remain in the early stages of investigating what caused the crash into a Calabasas hillside amid foggy conditions.

It could take the National Transportation Safety Board up to 18 months to complete its investigation, but the federal agency has said it will issue a preliminary report within about 10 days. Here’s what we know so far, and the biggest questions that remain.

The investigation

The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash with assistance from the FBI, which is standard practice. Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB member who oversaw the investigation of the Conception dive boat fire, is leading this investigation. Investigators will look at the history of the pilot and helicopter maintenance records, as well as the foggy conditions, which can quickly disorient pilots.


As my colleagues Hannah Fry and Richard Winton have written, there are some basic questions at the heart of the investigation: “Why was the pilot flying so low in the moments before the crash, and why could the chopper not clear the hillside?”

[Read the story: “The crucial questions at the heart of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash investigation” in the Los Angeles Times]

What we’ve learned so far

The helicopter — a Sikorsky S-76 chopper built in 1991 — was not equipped with a terrain alarm system that could have warned the pilot he was approaching a hillside. During a news conference on Tuesday, Homendy said that the helicopter was at 2,300 feet when it lost communication with air traffic controllers, and the descent rate of the helicopter at the time of impact was more than 2,000 feet a minute. The NTSB had previously disclosed that the pilot had rapidly ascended to avoid a cloud layer just before crashing into the hillside.

[Read the story: “Kobe Bryant’s helicopter was not equipped with terrain warning system that could have alerted pilot to hillside” in the Los Angeles Times]

Flight graphic.
(Matt Stiles & Priya Krishnakumar)

More coverage on Bryant and the crash:

  • “The last flight of Kobe Bryant.” Our team of reporters traces the helicopter’s flight path, and how it diverted from the usual route. Los Angeles Times
  • In Orange County, Kobe Bryant grew from basketball’s enfant terrible into a “typical dad.” Bryant lived in Orange County for nearly 20 years. Los Angeles Times
  • The day after Bryant’s death, the talk at barbershops in L.A. was about Kobe and his legacy. Los Angeles Times
  • John Altobelli was remembered at the Orange Coast College Pirates’ opening day. Altobelli, who had coached Orange Coast baseball for 27 years, died in the crash along with his wife and daughter. Orange County Register

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


What happened to L.A.'s $1 billion for homeless housing? In 2016, voters approved Proposition HHH, a $1.2-billion bond measure to build housing for homeless people and low-income families. Here’s a look at where progress on that housing stands. Los Angeles Times

Plus, columnist Nita Lelyveld writes on how Angelenos need to “unharden their hearts” toward homeless people. Los Angeles Times

Are these the most underrated restaurants in L.A.? The Eater staff thinks so. Eater LA

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California has passed laws aimed at ridding the state of private immigration detention centers, but the GEO Group continues to expand. Behind-the-scenes communications and deals between GEO and leaders of the cash-strapped high desert city of Adelanto shed light on “how the company has influenced decision-makers and sought out workarounds in order to continue operating one of the country’s largest immigration detention centers.” Desert Sun

In the days since that Desert Sun investigation was released, advocates have called on the Adelanto City Council to fire the city manager for his “involvement and collusion with” the for-profit prison company that owns and operates the Adelanto ICE Processing Center. Desert Sun


The fate of key votes in President Trump’s impeachment trial remained uncertain Tuesday as his defense lawyers concluded their arguments and Republicans led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell struggled to muster the votes to bring the trial to a speedy close without calling witnesses. Los Angeles Times

Meanwhile, California voters disapprove of Trump by roughly 2-1, according to a new poll. Although some national polls have seen Trump’s standing with voters tick up slightly in recent months, his numbers in California have not changed significantly over the past two years. Los Angeles Times

California lawmakers will consider expanding the reach of the state’s juvenile justice system so that those under age 20 are automatically tried as minors — an idea backed by some state probation officers, who say teenagers aren’t mature enough to be held responsible in the same way as older offenders. Los Angeles Times

Did Fresno County water officials splurge on slot machines and appliances? Three former Panoche Water District officials are accused of misusing more than $100,000 in public funds. Fresno Bee


San Francisco Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru was charged with fraud after his arrest by the FBI in connection with multiple alleged kickback schemes. San Francisco Chronicle


A flight carrying government employees evacuated from the U.S. Consulate in the Chinese city of Wuhan amid a coronavirus outbreak will land at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County instead of Ontario International Airport, officials announced Tuesday night. Los Angeles Times


The union that handles every shipping container that crosses West Coast docks is bracing for bankruptcy. It’s a rare prospect for a bargaining group, and it’s rattling organized labor nationally. Los Angeles Times

How filmmaker Ron Howard “earned” the right to document the town of Paradise’s destruction and rebirth. The director’s latest documentary, “Rebuilding Paradise,” recently unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival, deals with the devastating Camp fire. Los Angeles Times

Your “Super Bowl carrots” might be from this Fresno County farm. Its 400 acres of winter carrots are made into baby carrots and sold mainly around Super Bowl time to be put on snack trays. Fresno Bee

A “resilience center” has opened in Gilroy to heal continuing trauma from last year’s garlic festival shooting. It will offer individual and group counseling and trauma education, and help with applying for public funds set aside for victim compensation. Mercury News

A newly rebuilt home of Tubbs fire survivors was trashed by teens who broke in to throw a party. The couple was about six weeks out from moving back in to the house. Santa Rosa Press-Democrat


Los Angeles: sunny, 76. San Diego: sunny, 68. San Francisco: partly sunny, 59. San Jose: partly sunny, 62. Sacramento: partly sunny, 65. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Professor John C. Balachandra:

I am a Sri Lankan Tamil who emigrated to the USA due to the ethnic conflict there 40 years ago. In Sri Lanka, as a teenager in the 1960s, I watched “The Graduate” movie with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, and fell in love with the beauty of Northern California. And, of course, Katherine Ross and the Simon & Garfunkel songs. I was determined to come over to the USA and get my PhD in electrical engineering, which I did from Texas A&M in 1984, and to settle down in California, which I did from 1984, as a professor at Cal State Sacto and eventually UC Santa Cruz. God fulfilled my heart’s desires. I love California, and this wonderful country, the land of the free, the home of the brave. God bless America!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.