Authorities investigating a helicopter crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna (Gigi), and seven others Sunday morning in Southern California say that dense fog in the Los Angeles Basin at the time likely played a key role.
The 1991 Sikorsky S-76 helicopter had departed from John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana at 9:06 a.m. Sunday and was on its way to Gigi’s basketball game in Thousand Oaks when it collided with the side of a mountain at an altitude of about 1,400 feet. All nine people aboard – the pilot and eight passengers – died in the crash.
Special clearance to fly
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told the New York Times that the helicopter was given a special clearance to fly from Orange County to the Los Angeles area in the extreme fog. According to TMZ Sports, the helicopter appeared to have encountered weather-related problems in the air above the Los Angeles Zoo, where it circled for about 15 minutes, likely waiting for better visibility.
The pilot, identified as Ara Zobayan, contacted Burbank Airport air traffic controllers about 9:30 and then proceeded to fly north along Interstate 5 through Burbank before turning west to follow the Ventura Highway (U.S. 101). Around 9:40 the helicopter turned toward the southeast and climbed to more than 2,000 feet before descending and crashing into a mountainside in Calabasas.
Flight data shows the helicopter was flying about 184 mph and was descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet a minute when it crashed.
Severe fog thwarted flight
According to the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division grounded its helicopters Sunday morning due to the severe fog. LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said that the weather situation didn’t meet the department’s minimum standards for flying. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that the department’s helicopters were ungrounded.
While several authorities said that the fog would likely play a key part in the investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) indicated it would assess other potential factors equally.
“We take a broad look at everything around an investigation, around an accident,” Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said at a news conference Monday afternoon. “We look at man, machine and the environment, and weather is just a small portion of that.”
“A pilot is responsible for determining whether it is safe to fly in current and expected conditions, and a pilot is also responsible for determining flight visibility,” said an FAA official who spoke to the New York Times on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the investigation.
FAA records show the pilot received his commercial license in 2007 and had an instrument rating, meaning he was trained to navigate the helicopter by instrument readings. He was also certified to teach other pilots training to obtain their instrument rating.
The others killed in the crash are Gianna’s basketball teammate Alyssa Altobelli, her parents John and Keri Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Payton Chester and his mother Sarah Chester.
According to Business Insider, Mr. Altobelli was a baseball coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. Ms. Mauser was a basketball coach at Gigi’s former school, Harbor Day School.
After retiring from the NBA, Kobe started coaching his daughter’s basketball team at Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand oaks.
Kobe was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in 1996 from his Philadelphia high school. He was traded to the Lakers the same year at just 17 years old and instantly became a fan favorite. He spent his entire 20-season career playing for the Lakers. He retired from professional basketball in 2016.
Mike Andrews, a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, focuses much of his practice on aviation accident litigation. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. Currently, Mike represents family members of victims in the Ethiopian Airlines crash involving the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft.