HAI Convention News

Helo Crash Kills Basketball Legend Kobe Bryant, Eight Others

 - January 26, 2020, 7:23 PM

Retired Los Angeles Lakers basketball legend Kobe Bryant, 41, and his daughter Gianna, 13, were two of nine aboard a 1991 Sikorsky S-76B—registered as N72EX—who died Sunday at 9:47 a.m. local time when the helicopter went down just south of the 101 freeway in Calabasas, California. According to the Los Angeles County sheriff, there were eight passengers and one pilot on board.

The helicopter lifted off from John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, at 9:06 a.m. en route to Bryant’s basketball academy in Thousand Oaks, California when it slammed into a hillside in conditions described as low ceilings and heavy fog. The helicopter, which was registered to Island Express Holding, was believed to be flying with one pilot aboard.

After departing Santa Ana, the helicopter proceeded northbound over the I-5 highway to Glendale, California where it descended and made numerous orbits in the vicinity of Dodger Stadium. It then climbed and continued northward to the 118 freeway, and then headed westbound before turning to the south toward the 101 freeway, then turning westbound again in what appeared to be an attempt to follow that road to Thousand Oaks. However, on the west side of Calabasas the helicopter again resumed a southerly heading before radar contact was lost. The wreckage was located just south of the 101 freeway and was consumed by a post-crash fire. 

Both Van Nuys and Burbank Airports reported marginal weather conditions near the time of the accident. At 9:51 a.m., Van Nuys reported 2.5 miles visibility, 1,100 feet overcast, and haze. At Burbank at 10:16 a.m., it was also 2.5 miles visibility with a ceiling of 1,100 feet in haze. 

At 9:35 a.m. the pilot of N72EX reported that he was at 1,400 feet and requested a special VFR transition from Van Nuys tower. He was then cleared into Van Nuys Class D airspace at or below 2,500 feet on the northeast side along the 118 freeway. The pilot acknowledged and reported a heading of 325 degrees and answered in the affirmative that he wished to switch frequencies to Socal Approach.

The pilot then requested a turn to the southwest (to intercept the 101) and Van Nuys approved. At 9:39 a.m. the pilot reported VFR and 1,500 feet. At 9:42 a.m., the pilot squawked ident with Socal Approach. At 9:43:58, Socal Approach informed the pilot that he was too low for flight following. Less than a minute later, at 9:44:22, Socal Approach unsuccessfully tried to reach the pilot. The pilot did not appear to issue any distress call. 

Photos from the accident area appear to show elevated terrain on both sides of the 101 freeway, with flatter terrain just west of the area where the pilot appeared to initiate a turn to the south. Data from Radarbox and Flightradar24 both suggest that the final moments of the flight were unstabilized, with the aircraft climbing rapidly from an altitude of 1,200 to 2,150 feet within 40 seconds at speeds ranging from 110 to 153 knots.

This data suggests that, during its final turn to the south, the helicopter was descending rapidly through 1,700 feet. Terrain within 4 nm of the accident site climbs higher than 2,800 feet. 

Following the accident, both the Helicopter Association International (HAI) and the accident aircraft’s manufacturer, Sikorsky, issued statements of condolence. HAI said it “expresses our deepest sympathies to the families, friends, and coworkers of those lost in today’s crash.” 

Sikorsky also extended condolences and said it stood ready “to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer. Safety is our top priority; if there are any actionable findings from the investigation, we will inform our S-76 customers.”