Charter company that operated helicopter in Kobe Bryant crash has received federal coronavirus funds

Kobe Bryant shares a laugh with his daughter Gianna while attending a women's basketball game between Long Beach State and Oregon on Dec. 14, 2019.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The charter company that operated the helicopter that crashed in January, killing Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others, has received more than $600,000 through a federal program to support aviation industry payrolls in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

Long Beach-based Island Express Helicopters got the payment May 1 through the CARES Act, according to Treasury Department records.

The company is one of 202 passenger air carriers of all sizes that have received payroll support through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in amounts from $5,900 to $5.8 billion.

Twenty-four of the firms, including Island Express, are based in California. The biggest in-state distribution — $26.9 million — went to Clay Lacy Aviation in Van Nuys. Thirteen of the companies received $1 million or more in aid.

A spokesman for Island Express declined to comment.

The Los Angeles County coroner autopsy report says blunt force trauma was cause of death in the crash that killed Kobe Bryant. No illegal substances or alcohol were found in the bloodstream of pilot Ara Zobayan.


The company faces four wrongful death lawsuits in Los Angeles County Superior Court related to the crash.

The 1991 Sikorsky S-76B carrying Bryant slammed into a hillside in Calabasas, near Los Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street, in dense fog Jan. 26. The helicopter was en route to a youth basketball game at Bryant’s sports academy in Thousand Oaks.

In addition to Kobe and Gianna Bryant, John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; Payton and Sarah Chester; Christina Mauser, and pilot Ara Zobayan were also killed.

Vanessa Bryant sued in February on the same day as the public memorial service at Staples Center for her husband and daughter.

“Defendant Island Express Helicopters authorized, directed and/or permitted a flight with full knowledge that the subject helicopter was flying into unsafe weather conditions,” the lawsuit said.

In an answer to the complaint filed last week, attorneys for Island Express argued that the passengers knew the “particular dangers” of travel by helicopter and assumed them voluntarily. The filing described the crash as an “unavoidable accident.”

Los Angeles County’s chief law enforcement watchdog is seeking to subpoena documents related to allegations that Sheriff Alex Villanueva directed a cover up after deputies shared graphic photos of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others.

One of Bryant’s attorneys didn’t respond to a request for comment on the CARES Act funds.

Surviving members of the Altobelli, Chester and Mauser families have also sued the company.

Island Express suspended operations indefinitely after the crash. Its website, updated in early March, offered charter services once again.

“Your time is precious, with traffic congestion at its worst in CA, we can turn a two-hour taxi ride from LAX into a 12-minute flight,” the site said.

The company’s most recent Instagram post said in mid-April that it continued to offer daily flights to and from Catalina Island for “essential travel” and “we can’t wait until things get back to normal.”