When the helicopter careened into a California hillside on the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, killing Kobe Bryant and the eight others on board, the initial response around the world was shock.
Then, it was: How?
How did this seemingly routine trip to a youth basketball game end in tragedy? How did the helicopter that Bryant used for years suddenly crash?
How could this possibly have happened? Nearly one year later, the facts surrounding the crash – from the pilot's experience, to the weather conditions, to the helicopter's safety features – are known. And a final determination on what caused the crash is now just weeks away.
The National Transportation Safety Board is set to release its final report on the incident on Feb. 9, including a proximate cause and subsequent safety recommendations.
In the meantime, the board has released 1,852 pages of factual evidence collected during its investigation, including interview transcripts, email records, text messages, photos, meteorological reports and video footage from cameras in the area.
"Accident investigation is really like putting a puzzle back together," said Anthony Brickhouse, a former NTSB investigator who is now an associate professor of aerospace safety at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
"(It's) really a meticulous process. It’s not something that happens overnight. It requires a lot of digging, a lot of research."
As investigators put the finishing touches on that final report, here's everything we know about the crash, based on documents released by the NTSB to date. The flight
At 8:39 on the morning of the crash, pilot Ara Zobayan sent a text message to the small group of people coordinating Bryant's trip – including his drivers, concierge and a representative from the helicopter company.
"Heli at OC," Zobayan wrote. "Standing by."
Thirty minutes later, the helicopter was in the air, traveling from John Wayne-Orange County Airport to Camarillo, California, where the passengers would then be driven to a youth basketball game in nearby Thousand Oaks. Bryant was joined on the flight by his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; and Christina Mauser, an assistant coach.
The helicopter flew north for about 15 minutes before slowing down and circling near Glendale to make way for air traffic at a nearby airport. Then it followed a highway into the hills near Calabasas, flying between 400 feet and 600 feet above the ground.
"You just going to stay down low at that for all the way to Camarillo?" an air traffic controller asked Zobayan.
"Yes sir," the pilot replied. "Low altitude."
Minutes later, there was a shift change at the Southern California TRACON, which provides air traffic control services to airports in the region. And the helicopter was heading into increasingly mountainous terrain, where visibility that morning was poor.
When the new air traffic controller contacted Zobayan, the pilot said he was climbing above the clouds, to 4,000 feet. Instead, the helicopter got no more than 1,600 feet above the ground before banking left and descending rapidly, crashing into the hills.
"That combination of the low-lying stratus layer, and also the relatively high-rising terrain – (it's) a common and, really, a deadly combination," said Jack Cress, a former helicopter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps who is now an instructor in the Aviation Safety & Security Program at the University of Southern California.
The helicopter Bryant regularly traveled by helicopter during and after his NBA career, in part to avoid the oft-gridlocked traffic in Los Angeles. And he regularly chartered flights with Island Express Helicopters, including 13 trips in 2019.
In fact, the helicopter involved in the crash – a Sikorsky S-76B – was the same machine that transported Bryant to his final game with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2016.
Cress said the Sikorsky S-76 is generally well-regarded among pilots and has a strong safety record over decades of use. He noted that it has been the "helicopter of choice" for Queen Elizabeth II, among other top dignitaries, since 2009. "They just don't fall out of the sky," pilot Kurt Deetz, who previously flew Bryant in the same helicopter, told CNN last year.
The NTSB has examined the helicopter itself as part of its investigation, including both maintenance records and physical evidence obtained at the crash scene. It said in a preliminary report last year that the engines had been found near the wreckage and showed "no evidence of an uncontained or catastrophic internal failure."
"I haven’t seen anything in the data that I’ve looked at that would suggest that there was anything physically wrong with the helicopter, that would cause an accident," said Brickhouse, who reviewed the NTSB's public docket of the crash.
The helicopter did, however, lack two notable components. It did not have a flight recorder, colloquially known as a "black box," that could have provided additional data for investigators. Nor did it have a terrain awareness and warning system, known as TAWS, which notifies pilots when they get dangerously close to the ground.
The weather conditions One witness told the NTSB that she was preparing to meet a friend for a hike at a nearby trailhead when she saw a helicopter disappear into clouds that were obscuring the tops of trees.
Another witness reached out to the investigators to advise them that the area near the crash is "predisposed to channel fog up from the coast."
"We heard the helicopter flying normally, but couldn't really see it because it was extremely foggy and low clouds," a third witness reported in an email. "I was thinking to myself of (sic) why a helicopter would be flying so low in very bad weather conditions."
The weather on the morning of the crash has become a key component of the NTSB's investigation. Its meteorological report spans 394 pages and includes satellite images, surface observations, photos, maps and other assorted data.
Investigators even compared footage from cameras in the area, perched behind home plate at three youth baseball fields, to estimate visibility at the time of the crash.
The weather was also a topic of conversation among Bryant's travel coordinating team prior to take-off. Zobayan, the pilot, fielded inquiries about it via text message the night before the flight and the morning of.
"Should be OK," he replied.
Pilots typically fly under visual flight rules, where they can see where they're going, or instrument flight rules, where they primarily rely on the aircraft's instruments because their vision is obscured. But the conditions that morning prompted Zobayan to take off under special visual flight rules, a sort of middle ground between the two.
"That term in itself is not scary," Cress said. "But when you’re having to contend with low visibility, and low clouds, and variable terrain – and that’s quite variable up there – then special VFR does get scary." The weather that morning has also been at the center of multiple lawsuits filed by Bryant's wife, Vanessa, and the other victims' families against the helicopter company and Zobayan's estate. The families argue that Zobayan should not have flown in adverse conditions, and that Island Express Helicopters should have had regulations in place to prevent him from doing so.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Los Angeles Police Department later said low clouds and fog in the area had prompted them to ground their own helicopters on the morning of the crash.
The pilot Zobayan, 50, first became interested in flying when he emigrated from Lebanon in the 1980s, his girlfriend of seven years told investigators. He got his private pilot certificate in 2001 and had flown more than 8,500 hours at the time of the crash, including 1,250 in the Sikorsky S-76.
For several years, Zobayan was one of only two pilots who flew Bryant for Island Express Helicopters, according to Deetz, who was the other.
"He's always been a great pilot, performed really well, very proficient," Luca Dell'Anese, an instructor who oversaw Zobayan's training checks for several years, told the NTSB. "He always demonstrated sound judgment ... during the training."
Zobayan was reprimanded once by the FAA, in 2015, for flying into busy airspace without clearance. He was counseled on the incident but not required to undergo any remedial training.
Investigators have questioned whether Zobayan became spatially disoriented in the fog just before the crash. One NTSB document mentions the possibility that he might have experienced a "somatogravic illusion," a phenomenon in which gravitational forces can confuse the body in the absence of visual cues.
In other words, Zobayan might have felt like the helicopter was climbing as it banked toward the hillside.
"You can get yourself in a bad spot, because your body is lying to you," said Cress, who is also the principal officer at Vortechs Helicopter Analytics. "It doesn’t know that you’re both turned and attempting to climb."
Cress also wonders if Zobayan might have felt pressure to complete the flight on time that day – pressure that might have kept him flying through the fog, into hilly terrain, when perhaps he should have turned around.
"There would’ve been a lot of professional pressure within himself – 'I’ve done this kind of thing, I know this terrain, I can do this. This guy in the back really wants to do it, and I’m going to do everything I can,' " Cress said. "He just got in too deep." The next steps
While the NTSB's determination on the cause of the crash is not admissible in court, its findings on Feb. 9 will likely provide a road map for lawyers in the wrongful death lawsuits filed by the victims' families.
The final report will also give the NTSB an opportunity to make safety recommendations to the FAA, which can then choose whether or not to enact them.
Robert Clifford, a lawyer who specializes in aviation litigation, said it often takes a tragedy for important safety reforms to be taken seriously. "A person of the stature of Mrs. Bryant, advancing the cause of enhanced safety for her husband and daughter," Clifford said, "maybe she can make change."
Brickhouse, meanwhile, noted that the NTSB has been making some of the same safety recommendations to the FAA "for the past 15, 16 years" without luck. The board first recommended that TAWS be required on helicopters, for instance, in 2006 after a helicopter crashed in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 10 people. The FAA didn't adopt it.
"Because (this) was a high-profile accident," Brickhouse said, "it’ll be interesting to see if some of those recommendations will be enacted."
USA TODAY Sports is marking the first anniversary of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others with a six-day series of stories, photos and videos looking back at the Lakers legend and the aftermath of his death. More at usatoday.com
Contributing: The Associated Press Contact @Tom_Schad.
Published 6:34 AM