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Police work around the scene of a helicopter crash that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others in Calabasas, Calif., on Sunday. Kelvin Kuo/AP hide caption
Updated at 3:30 p.m. ET
Investigators are now poring over the scene where former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people died Sunday in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. It’s not clear why the craft went down, although weather conditions at the time were difficult. The National Transportation Safety Board has sent a team to the site and is now leading the probe.
The helicopter took off from the John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. local time, according to Flightradar24. Its destination was Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park.
The Sikorsky S-76B was flying in low clouds and fog, and was operating under “Special VFR” (or Special Visual Flight Rules) status, meaning its pilot had been granted a request to fly in challenging conditions. Such a request is uncommon — but not unusual.
“The pilot in command is responsible for determining whether it is safe to fly in current and expected weather conditions,” said Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Pacific division.
The pilot’s SVFR flight plan called for him to stay clear of clouds and fog, and to navigate by using highways and landmarks as references.
The pilot likely had to file the Special VFR flight plan because the destination, Bryant’s sports complex, doesn’t have the instrument landing systems that an airport would have to help guide the helicopter to a safe landing.
An aviation weather advisory for Sunday morning had warned pilots that poor visibility would require them to navigate by Instrument Flight Rules — using their cockpit systems to get through clouds.
The helicopter crashed in steep terrain in the mountains near the 4200 block of Las Virgenes Road in Calabasas. The crash was reported to the Los Angeles County Fire Department at 9:47 a.m. The fiery wreckage ignited a small brush fire. Firefighters found no survivors.
I will add this to the #KobeBryant thread.
Airmet Sierra that was valid until 2100Z today. (1PM Local)
Highlights IFR Conditions and most importantly Mountain Obscuration due to poor weather.
All the signs and clues were there….. Freaking senseless. pic.twitter.com/aedzdv5D4R
— ☈ Chris Jackson ☈ (@ChrisJacksonSC) January 26, 2020
- Kobe Bryant, 41
- Gianna Bryant, 13
- John Altobelli, Orange Coast College head baseball coach
- Kerri Altobelli, the coach’s wife
- Alyssa Altobelli, who was Gianna’s basketball teammate
The four other people onboard have not yet been publicly identified. The office of the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner says it will release more information as it confirms identities and informs next of kin.
Investigators recovered three bodies from the helicopter wreckage on Sunday before darkness forced them to halt their efforts, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner.
According to reports, the pilot was Ara George Zobayan. The FAA database lists him as an instrument-rated commercial pilot licensed to fly helicopters. In addition, he was both a helicopter flight and ground instructor.
“Bryant’s daughter, Gianna, was an up-and-coming player in her own right,” member station KPCC/LAist reports. “She played with the Los Angeles Lady Mambas, which was coached by Bryant and is part of a co-ed youth basketball league he created in partnership with the Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club. The team plays at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where the group was heading Sunday morning for a tournament.”
Investigators will have to deal with rugged and elevated terrain. On Sunday, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby “said it took about nine minutes for firefighters to hike extremely steep terrain to the site,” KPCC/LAist reports, adding that other firefighters were lowered to the scene from a sheriff’s helicopter.
NTSB member Jennifer Homendy says a team of 18 people will investigate the crash. And while bad weather has been cited repeatedly as a potential cause, the team will look into numerous potential factors. At a news conference Sunday night, she listed the investigators’ areas of expertise: “operations, human performance, airworthiness, structures and power plants.”
Homendy added that her team will also be looking at the pilot’s history, along with the helicopter’s maintenance records and records related to the aircraft’s owner and operator.
One NTSB staff member reached the crash site on Sunday; the rest of the team arrived in California late Sunday and met Monday morning to prepare for the complex investigation.
Homendy said her team will work to determine whether the Sikorsky helicopter has a “black box” flight data recorder.
The flight path
After taking off from Orange County, the aircraft headed northwest over Los Angeles. Then the helicopter briefly circled several times over Glendale, after air traffic controllers asked the pilot to hold in place to let planes land at a nearby airport.
The helicopter eventually continued on in a northwesterly direction and then turned south; soon afterward, it crashed in the mountains near Calabasas.
In the flight’s final moments, the helicopter was flying between 120 and 160 knots. The aircraft then started flying faster and descending very rapidly – in excess of 5,000 feet per minute. The last flight data received from the helicopter was at 9:45 a.m., 39 minutes after it took off.
The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter Bryant’s group was flying in was built in 1991. It was initially owned by the state of Illinois – but the state auctioned it off in the summer of 2015 for $515,161.
The winning bid came from a user named “Jimbagge1″ – and Jim Bagge is an executive at Island Express Holding Corp., a California company that holds the registration for the helicopter: N72EX.
“Aircraft must be inspected annually or every 100 flight hours, whichever comes first,” the FAA’s Gregor said. “Additionally, certain parts must be replaced or overhauled at specific intervals. Maintenance records belong to the aircraft owner, who must make them available to the FAA for inspection upon request. The FAA looks at aircraft maintenance history as part of every accident investigation.”
NPR’s Russell Lewis contributed to this report.
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