On Jan. 26, 2020, a fiery helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, took the lives of nine people, including NBA legend Kobe Bryant. He was 41 years old.
Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna (Gigi) was also on the flight with her father. Their traveling companions included John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter Alyssa, Christina Mauser, who was an assistant coach on the basketball team Kobe Bryant coached and on which Bryant’s daughter, Alyssa Altobelli, and Payton Chester played, and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton Chester. The pilot of the aircraft was Ara Zobayan.
The eight passengers and pilot were heading to Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where the girls’ team, the Lady Mambas, was scheduled to play a basketball game at noon. The chartered helicopter trip was not unusual for Bryant, who often flew from his Orange County home to avoid Los Angeles traffic. According to sources, Zobayan was his go-to pilot.
Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash Timeline
9:06 a.m. The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter departs from John Wayne Airport bound for Camarillo Airport near Bryant’s academy.
9:21 a.m. Around this time, pilot Ara Zobayan requests special visual flight rules clearance or SVFR. Pilots with SVFR clearance may, with permission from air traffic control, fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for regular visual flight rules. Pilots occasionally ask for SVFR if the weather conditions change along the route of flight; such requests are not uncommon. On Sunday morning, the Los Angeles Police Department decided to ground its helicopters due to low visibility caused by low clouds and fog.
9:33 a.m. Around this time, Zobayan is told by air traffic controllers (ATC) to maintain SVFR and “follow the 5 Freeway.” Zobayan confirms with ATC that he heard the instructions and the helicopter heads north. Later, ATC in Burbank asks Zobayan to switch to the ATC in Van Nuys. The pilot makes contact with Van Nuys, noting the helicopter was “at 1400” feet. Thereafter, Zobayan requests flight following (radar assistance that helps the pilot avoid traffic). ATC tells the pilot that the helicopter is too low to provide flight following assistance.
It has been reported that in the last transmission from Zobayan, he tells ATC the helicopter is climbing to avoid a cloud layer.
9:42 a.m. ATC reaches out to Zobayan but gets no response. “…you’re following a 1200 code. So you’re requesting flight following?” ATC asks. “Say intentions…You’re still too low level for flight following at this time.”
9:45 a.m. The helicopter falls off radar.
9:47 a.m. Los Angeles County Sheriff receives the first 911 call in response to the helicopter crash.
What Caused the Helicopter Crash That Killed Kobe Bryant and Eight Others?
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) along with officials from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will be probing the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash.
Helicopter crash investigations usually take a year to 18 months to complete. The NTSB should issue a preliminary report detailing initial findings within 10-14 days. A final report will include conclusions about the crash cause(s) and any recommendations to prevent future crashes.
In all product liability aviation accident cases we handle, we also conduct our own investigation on behalf of our clients. It is very important for aviation attorneys to thoroughly examine and scrutinize all of the evidence related to the crash so we can prosecute the case to the fullest extent to obtain maximum compensation and justice for our clients. Our investigation is complimentary to the NTSB investigation, and, importantly, supplemental to the hard work of these investigators. It is often the case that our investigation leads to important information not revealed or incorporated into the government’s work.
We have a go-to team of world-class experts (some who worked for the NTSB) that we team with on a regular basis to rigorously and carefully reconstruct and analyze the accident to determine the cause of the crash.
Our principal goal is to be in the best position to represent our clients and to further the effort to minimize future loss of life through a complete understanding, and expert analysis, of what caused the devastating losses.
According to Ronald L.M. Goldman, an aviation attorney, who has been handling helicopter crash cases for decades, investigators will be examining the following (among other things):
- Maintenance records for the Sikorsky S-76B (N72EX)
- Distribution of wreckage throughout the crash site
- Aircraft components and systems
- Pilot’s actions and experience
- All air traffic control clearances and communications
- Weather conditions
“Investigators will also be analyzing what is often referred to as the ‘cascade of errors’ that can happen when an emergency situation escalates,” says Goldman. “This is especially an issue in foggy conditions.”
In an article for the Los Angeles Times on the tragedy, Mr. Goldman discussed whether terrain awareness and warning system or TAWS, could have prevented the fatal crash in Calabasas. The NTSB has argued for more than 15 years that TAWS can prevent helicopter crashes into terrain. Based on the early findings in the Kobe Bryant crash investigation, Mr. Goldman doubts that TAWS would have made much of a difference. According to Goldman, if spatial disorientation was a factor (a pilot loses his or her sense of direction), “TAWS doesn’t tell you up from down. It doesn’t tell you where the ground is.”
Victims of the Fatal Helicopter Crash in Calabasas
- Kobe Bryant: The NBA icon came into the NBA straight out of high school and took the league by storm. After a storied 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, Bryant retired as the third-highest scorer in NBA history. Bryant, whose father was also an NBA player, held the third position until the night before he passed away when LeBron James surpassed him. Bryant is survived by his wife and three other daughters.
- Gianna (Gigi) Bryant: Gigi Bryant shared her father’s passion for the game of basketball and had dreams of playing in the WNBA. A video of the 13-year-old and her father sitting courtside at an NBA game went viral recently, as the former player appeared to be breaking the game down for his daughter.
- John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli: John Altobelli managed the baseball team at Orange Coast College for 27 seasons, racking up more than 700 wins. In 2019, Altobelli was named the ABCA/Diamond National Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA). He also coached in the Cape Cod summer league, where he mentored big leaguers Aaron Judge and Jeff McNeil. John and Keri Altobelli had two daughters, Alyssa and Alexis. Alyssa was a friend and teammate on the Lady Mambas with Gigi Bryant and Payton Chester. John’s son from a previous marriage, JJ Altobelli, is a scout for the Boston Red Sox.
- Christina Mauser: Kobe Bryant selected Christina Mauser to be an assistant coach for the Lady Mambas, the girls’ basketball team that included Gigi Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli, and Payton Chester. Mauser also coached at Harbor Day School in Corona del Mar. She is survived by her husband and three children.
- Sarah and Payton Chester: Payton Chester played on the Lady Mambas. She was an eighth-grader at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, where her mother, Sarah, sat on the board of trustees. Sarah is survived by her husband and two sons.
- Ara Zobayan: The helicopter pilot worked for Island Express and loved to fly. An instrument-rated helicopter pilot, Zobayan earned his commercial pilot’s license in 2007. He was also a certified helicopter pilot flight instructor including instrument instruction. According to CNN, Zobayan was up to date on FAA-required annual medical exams.
What Do We Know About the Sikorsky S-76B Bryant Was Flying?
The Sikorsky S-76B is an intermediate-class twin-engine commercial helicopter powered by two Pratt & Whitney PT6B turboshaft engines.
Prior to the Kobe Bryant crash, the Sikorsky S-76 model had been involved in at least 71 incidents around the world between 1978 and 2019. In these incidents, approximately 47 people died.
Some of the causes of these incidents related to mechanical issues, such as:
- Engine failure – fractured turbine blade
- Engine failure – fuel control system
- Tail rotor blade failure
- Main rotor servo failure
Below are some basic specs for the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter that Bryant and the others were flying:
- Tail No.: N72EX
- Model: S-76B
- Year Manufactured: 1991
- Engines: (2) Pratt & Whitney PT6
- Registered Owner: Island Express Helicopters of Long Beach, California
- The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter with tail number N72EX was certified to fly under day and night visual flight rules (VFR) and instrument flight rules (IFR).
Helicopter Crash Attorneys with Proven Track Record Against Sikorsky
Over the last 40+ years, the helicopter accident attorneys of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman have secured justice and compensation on behalf of victims in a wide variety of helicopter crashes, including those involving Sikorsky helicopters.
Our firm has a proven track record of success representing more than 700 victims in aviation accidents, including aviation-related product liability lawsuits against helicopter manufacturers in the United States and around the world.
We have obtained justice for victims in helicopter crash cases against:
- Airbus Helicopters
- Bell Helicopter Textron
- Hughes Helicopters
- L-3 Communications
- McDonnell Douglas
- MD Helicopters
- Robinson Helicopters
If you would like to speak with an experienced helicopter crash attorney, contact us or call (855) 948-5098.
Kobe Bryant Crash Investigation Updates
Feb. 7, 2020 – Federal Investigators Have Not Found Evidence of Engine Failure
According to the NTSB’s preliminary investigation report, an analysis of the wreckage found no evidence of engine failure. The report does not draw any conclusions on the cause (or causes) of the crash, only a recitation of the verified circumstances leading up to the incident. The final report on the crash will likely take a year or more to complete.
An official familiar with the investigation has said Island Express was FAA-certified to offer charter flights but was restricted to operations under visual flight rules (VFR). This means that Island Express was not permitted for flight between Orange County and Camarillo using navigation instruments, even though pilot Ara Zobayan was instrument rated and the chopper was equipped for instrument flights.
“An investigation needs to include information revealing why a company with an IFR equipped helicopter and an IFR rated pilot nevertheless is prohibited from conducting IFR flights,” says aviation attorney Ronald L.M. Goldman.
Feb. 6, 2020 – Former FAA Inspector on Island Express Helicopters: “I Think They Were Trying to Cut Corners”
The New York Times reports that Island Express had “a series of disputes over its safety practices,” according to a former inspector with the FAA. The disputes reportedly began in 2008 on the heels of a fatal accident involving an Island Express chopper.
According to the report, an FAA operations inspector charged with overseeing Island Express (then under different ownership) had been pushing for more stringent safety practices. Gary Lackey, the FAA inspector, was concerned that Island Express appeared unwilling to spend money that would improve safety beyond the minimum requirements.
In his time overseeing Island Express, Lackey issued warning letters to the company and made recommendations to tighten safety procedures related to refueling, operating rotors during passenger boarding, and operations at a helipad Lackey felt was not safe.
“Everything that involves safety usually involves money also,” Mr. Lackey said. “I think they were trying to cut corners.”
Island Express rebuffed Mr. Lackey’s requests and asked the FAA to assign a new inspector. Lackey agreed to step aside and a new federal inspector was assigned to Island Express in 2008. Mr. Lackey would later be reassigned to Island Express, and he recalled that the previous tensions were eased until ownership of Island Express changed sometime between 2012 and 2013.
The new owners again argued to replace Mr. Lackey with a new inspector, though this time, Mr. Lackey said, a change did not occur.
The Times report noted that tensions between aircraft companies and the FAA are not uncommon. However, outside of an inspector being grossly incompetent, “it is highly unusual for an inspector to be replaced at the suggestion of a regulated company.”
In 2017, Kurt Deetz resigned from safety duties at Island Express, where he was a pilot and safety manager. The reason, according to Deetz, was differences of opinion when it came to safety.
“It all goes back to culture,” Mr. Deetz said. “There is window-dressing safety, and there is real actual get-your-hands-dirty safety culture.”