Federal investigators probing the helicopter crash that killed NBA basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others near Los Angeles last month said they found no evidence that engine failure contributed to the crash.
In its preliminary report of the Jan. 26 crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) did not determine a cause but offered some new details. Key among the findings was that “viewable sections of the engines showed no evidence of an uncontained or catastrophic internal failure.”
The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, and headed north to Camarillo Airport. Kobe, his daughter Gianna, and the other passengers were headed to a girls’ basketball game at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.
The weather was clear when the flight departed but visibility diminished as the helicopter approached Los Angeles due to heavy fog. As the aircraft was near Burbank, pilot Ara Zobayan radioed controllers for a special visual-flight-rules (VFR) clearance that would allow him to continue the flight despite the dense fog and low cloud cover.
Mr. Zobayan was certified to fly by instruments, but his company, Island Express, was licensed to fly visually only. He flew at a low altitude to escape the cloud cover and used the area’s freeways for visual reference as he navigated the aircraft. When he dropped below 1,500 feet, the controller advised that he would not be able to maintain radar contact at that altitude and terminated services.
At 9:45 a.m., Mr. Zobayan contacted controllers again. There had been a shift change so the new controller was not aware of the helicopter, as the services had been terminated. The controller asked the pilot to identify his flight and his intentions, to which Mr. Zobayan replied he was climbing to 4,000 feet. That was the pilot’s final transmission.
After the climb, which the pilot likely performed in an attempt to get above the cloud cover, the helicopter descended left at a high speed, colliding with a mountain slope above 800 feet. The collision created a two-foot impact crater.
The NTSB report mentions the poor weather conditions several times and includes witness pictures that document the fog and cloud cover at and around the crash site. The findings bolster the predominant theory that the pilot, blinded by the clouds, lost control of the helicopter.
Mr. Zobayan, who trained other pilots seeking their instrument rating, may not have converted to from instrument to visual flight due to his company’s restrictions. Some contacts close to the pilot and his company have indicated that Mr. Zobayan’s instrument flying skills may have been rusty because his job restricted him to clear conditions and daytime flight.
However, the update also found Mr. Zobayan’s most recent flight review in May included proficiency training for inadvertent entry into instrument conditions and recovery from an unusual attitude. The report said he “received satisfactory grades for these maneuvers.”
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.