HAI Convention News

Bryant's Helicopter In Rapid Descent Before Fatal Crash

 - January 28, 2020, 9:30 AM

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 approximately 9:45 a.m. local time when the helicopter went down just south of the 101 freeway in Calabasas, California. The accident helicopter was being operated under Part 135 as an on-demand charter flight.

It lifted off from John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, at 9:08 a.m. en route to the Camarillo Airport (KCMA), near Bryant’s basketball academy in Thousand Oaks, California, when it hit terrain in conditions described as low ceilings and heavy fog. The helicopter, which was registered to Island Express Holding, was flying with one pilot aboard—identified as 50-year-old Ara Zobayan of Huntington Beach, California. Zobayan held instrument helicopter and commercial ratings, as well as an FAA second-class aeromedical certificate with limitations for corrective lenses for near vision.  

After departing Santa Ana, the helicopter proceeded northbound over the I-5 highway to Glendale, California, where a Burbank Tower controller put it in a 15-minute hold for traffic before granting a special VFR transition through its Class C airspace. 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. 

Burbank Tower cleared N72EX via the north side of the airport along the I-5 freeway from the southeast to the northwest at or below 2,500 feet. Zobayan told the tower controller he intended to follow the I-5 to the 118 freeway for the next transition, through the Van Nuys airport’s Class D airspace, and then proceed southwest and pick up the 101 freeway and follow it westbound to his destination.  

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

Van Nuys approved a requested turn to the southwest (to intercept the 101). At 9:39 a.m., Zobayan reported VFR and 1,500 feet. At 9:42 a.m., he squawked ident with Socal Approach. At 9:43:58, Socal Approach informed him that he was too low for flight following.

Less than a minute later, at 9:44:22, Socal Approach unsuccessfully tried to reach N722EX. Thirty-one seconds later, near Calabasas, it appears the accident sequence began. Data from Radarbox and Flightradar24 both suggest that the final moments of the flight were unstabilized, with the aircraft climbing rapidly in a turn from west to southeast to east from an altitude of 1,200 to 2,150 feet in less than 40 seconds, before descending at a rate of 4,864 fpm.

ADS-B Chart

In the final 15 seconds of the flight, ground speed increased from 110 to 161 knots, with the last radar hit reported at 1,350 feet. The wreckage was located just south of the 101 freeway and was consumed by a post-crash fire. Photos from the accident area appear to show elevated terrain on both sides of the 101 freeway. 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.”

In addition to the Bryants and pilot Zobayan, the remainder of the passengers were identified as Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, 56, his wife Keri and their daughter Alyssa, 13; Sarah Chester, 45, and her daughter Payton, 13; and Christina Mauser, 38, an assistant coach at Bryant’s basketball academy. 

The accident helicopter was previously owned by the State of Illinois, registered at N761LL, from 2007 to 2015. The NTSB has dispatched a team from Washington to investigate.