In the final moments of the flight on Sunday that ended in a crash killing retired Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant and eight others, the helicopter had just left the San Fernando Valley as it flew west above the 101 Freeway into the hills around Calabasas.
What happened next in the fog and clouds is key to the mystery federal investigators are trying to unravel.
As the aircraft departed the Valley into rugged terrain, it appeared to come within a few hundred feet of striking a series of hills abutting Mureau Road near Hidden Hills. How close is not clear without more detailed data. National Transportation Safety Board investigators declined to comment on The Times’ findings.
The helicopter then climbed rapidly — roughly 875 feet in less than one minute — slowing to about 125 mph.
Why the pilot, 50-year-old Ara Zobayan, made this decision is unknown. But federal investigators say that at one point during the final minutes of the flight he said he was ascending to avoid a layer of clouds.
The pilot then diverged from the expected westbound path he reported to air traffic control and banked left, to the south. The helicopter then began a rapid descent over Las Virgenes Road.
It appears the pilot had lost contact with air traffic control by this point, according to radio recordings reviewed by The Times.
Then the 11,000-pound chopper, now traveling at about 175 mph, crashed into a hillside east of a local water district facility, scattering wreckage 600 feet.
The chopper had taken off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, carrying Bryant and his group to a basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks. The retired NBA player was scheduled to coach his 13-year-old daughter Gianna’s team in a game.
Accompanying the Bryants were John Altobelli, 56, longtime baseball coach at Orange Coast College; his wife, Keri, 46; their daughter Alyssa, 13; Christina Mauser, 38, an assistant basketball coach at the Mamba Sports Academy; Sarah Chester, 45; Chester’s daughter Payton, 13; and Zobayan.
NTSB investigator Jennifer Homendy said Tuesday that the helicopter was at 2,300 feet when it lost communication with air traffic controllers. The helicopter was descending rapidly.
“So we know that this was a high-energy impact crash, and the helicopter was in a descending left bank,” Homendy said.
The chopper hit the hillside at an elevation of 1,085 feet, about 20 to 30 feet below an outcropping of the hill. But even if the pilot had been able to fly above the hilltop, he would have faced new hazards ahead.
“There are actually other higher hills surrounding it,” said Bill English, a lead investigator.
At the crash site in Calabasas, officials are now working to clean up hazardous materials. The area is still closed to the public as officials remove debris and deal with magnesium and other hazardous and toxic materials following the crash. It will take some time to fully remove the substances from the area, experts say.
On Wednesday night, Vanessa Bryant took to social media to thank the public for its support and express her grief over the loss of her husband and daughter.
“There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now. I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved. We were so incredibly blessed to have them in our lives. I wish they were here with us forever. They were our beautiful blessings taken from us too soon,” she wrote on Instagram.
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.