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California

Kobe Bryant helicopter didn’t suffer engine failure, but cause still unclear

NTSB investigator
NTSB investigator Carol Hogan examines wreckage of the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, killing Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
(James Anderson / National Transportation Safety Board)

The helicopter that crashed last month in Calabasas, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, showed no signs of engine failure, the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday.

The news comes as federal investigators continue to investigate the cause of the crash. The finding that the chopper didn’t lose power before slamming into the hillside is one key conclusion, but many questions remain unanswered.

“Our investigators have already developed a substantial amount of evidence about the circumstances of this tragic crash,” NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said in a statement. “And we are confident that we will be able to determine its cause as well as any factors that contributed to it so we can make safety recommendations to prevent accidents like this from occurring again.”

The report provided more details about the crash but not a definitive cause, which is likely to take several more months.

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According to the report, the main impact crater was on a 34-degree slope and measured 24 feet by 15 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep.

“Examination of the main and tail rotor assemblies found damage consistent with powered rotation at the time of impact. The initial point of impact consisted of highly fragmented cabin and cockpit debris,” the report noted. The main wreckage was about 127 feet from the impact crater.

The engines were found lying inverted in the burned area. “Viewable sections of the engines showed no evidence of an uncontained or catastrophic internal failure,” the report said.

The 1991 Sikorsky S-76B was flying parents, coaches and players to a youth basketball game at Bryant’s Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks. The others who died in the fiery crash were Gianna Bryant; Christina Mauser; Payton and Sarah Chester; John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; along with pilot Ara Zobayan.

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While making no findings about the weather, the NTSB noted that videos and photos from the public “depict fog and low clouds obscuring the hilltops.” The preliminary report repeatedly noted that the pilot had struggled with a low cloud ceiling.

A witness on a mountain bike trail told investigators that the area was “surrounded by mist” and that he heard the sound of a helicopter and saw a blue and white chopper emerge from the clouds, passing from left to right.

“He judged it to be moving fast, traveling on a forward and descending trajectory. It started to roll to the left such that he caught a glimpse of its belly. He observed it for 1 to 2 seconds, before it impacted terrain about 50 feet below his position,” according to the report.

Officials said the chopper, which was flying using only visual readings, slammed into the hillside amid extremely foggy conditions. A Times data analysis tracked the final moments of the flight, finding the helicopter flew dangerously close to another hillside just before crashing. The NTSB report said the chopper was destroyed by “impact forces and fire.”

The helicopter — a Sikorsky S-76 chopper built in 1991 — departed John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. Jan. 26, according to publicly available flight records. The aircraft passed over Boyle Heights, near Dodger Stadium and circled over Glendale before flying toward its destination in Thousand Oaks.

Zobayan requested special visual flight rules, or VFR, which allow pilots to fly in controlled airspace when ceilings are less than 1,000 feet or when visibility is less than three miles. As weather deteriorated on the trip to Ventura County, the pilot requested “flight following,” a process in which controllers are in regular contact with an aircraft and can help navigate.

In recorded radio communications, the air traffic control tower is heard telling the pilot the chopper is too low for flight following. At 9:45 a.m., the pilot contacted an air traffic controller to say he was “climbing above the cloud layer.” The controller asked what he planned to do and Zobayan replied he “was climbing to 4,000 feet.” Radar data indicate Zobayan, who had been a licensed commercial helicopter pilot with Island Express for 10 years, guided the copter to 2,300 feet elevation between Las Virgenes and Lost Hills roads.

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NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said last week the helicopter, which lacked a terrain warning system, was at 2,300 feet when it lost communication with air traffic controllers. The helicopter was descending at more than 2,000 feet per minute at the time of impact.

According to the new NTSB report, eight seconds after that, the helicopter was going down with the rate of descent “increasing to over 4,000 feet per minute” and the ground speed reached about 184 mph on impact.

The chopper hit the hillside at an elevation of 1,085 feet, about 20 to 30 feet below an outcropping. Even if the pilot had been able to fly above the hilltop, he would have faced new hazards, officials said.

Helicopter pilots and crash experts have suggested the crash shows telltale signs of a pilot who became spatially disoriented in the clouds in the moments before the deadly impact on the foggy hillside,.

The NTSB after a deadly helicopter crash in Texas 16 years ago recommended that Terrain Awareness Warning Systems be required on all helicopters carrying six or more passengers. The Federal Aviation Administration rejected the recommendation, only implementing it for medical flight choppers. The report noted that the helicopter did not have a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder, but they were examining a flight computer and a number of electronic devices recovered from the wreckage. The NTSB has also previously recommended those for such choppers, following crashes.

Zobayan, the NTSB noted, was a veteran pilot with 8,200 hours, qualified to fly solely using navigation instruments in challenging weather conditions and had recently undergone refresher training on Instrument Flight Rules. The helicopter’s maintenance was up to date with no issues, the report found.

The operator Island Express, however, was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly its passengers in Visual Flight Rules condition, according to the preliminary report. Veteran helicopter pilots, however, say that in emergency circumstances, a pilot facing no visibility with Zobayan’s training would for the safety of the passengers usually transition to solely using instruments to navigate and would seek air traffic control assistance with a path to a safe course.


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