Mere seconds before crashing, the pilot of the VFR helicopter flight that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers the morning of January 26 had requested a climb to 4,000 feet through instrument meteorological conditions. That is among the information released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in its accident investigation update. At the time pilot Ara Zobayan requested the climb from SoCal approach, the 1991 Sikorsky S-76B, N72EX, had left a reported altitude of 1,500 feet msl and was already climbing to 2,300 msl, about 1,500 agl, while entering a left turn to the south and east, away from its previous route westbound over Highway 101. Eight seconds after beginning the turn the aircraft began descending, reaching a descent rate of over 4,000 fpm and a groundspeed of 160 knots. The last ADS-B target indicated an altitude of 1,200 feet msl 400 feet southwest of the accident location.
Camera images in the crash site area at the time showed cloud tops at 2,400 feet with fog and mist down to the ground. A security camera in the area showed the helicopter disappearing into clouds. An eyewitness 50 feet above the crash site reported seeing N72EX emerge out of the bottom of the clouds, descending at high speed, rolling left, and banked sufficiently that he could see the bottom of the aircraft.
The NTSB’s detailed report on wreckage condition and location paints a picture of a non-survivable, high-impact crash with a post-crash fire. The impact crater, located on a 340-degree slope in the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains, measured 24 by 15 feet and was two feet deep. Main and tail rotor assemblies exhibited damage consistent with powered impact. The initial impact point contained “highly fragmented” cabin and cockpit debris. The entire fuselage, including the cabin and both engines, was consumed in the post-crash fire. The engines were found lying inverted near the empennage in the burned area. A preliminary examination indicates the engines showed no evidence of failure before impact.
The accident aircraft had 4,716.1 hours total time, and was equipped with a four-axis automatic flight control system, electronic flight instrument system, radio altimeter, ADS-B transponder, and flight management system (FMS). The NTSB retained the FMS, two flight-control computers, four gyros, the standby attitude indicator, and several personal electronic devices from the wreckage for further study.
Zobayan, 50, held commercial, instrument helicopter, and CFII credentials and reported 8,200 hours total time, including 1,250 in the S-76, at his last flight physical in July 2019. His most recent flight review, conducted in May 2019 at Eurosafety International, included proficiency training for inadvertent entry into IMC and unusual attitude recovery. He had worked for the aircraft’s operator, Island Express, for 10 years.
Concurrent with the release of the update, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said, "Our investigators have already developed a substantial amount of evidence about the circumstances of this tragic crash. We are confident that we will be able to determine its cause as well as any factors that contributed to it so we can make safety recommendations to prevent accidents like this from occurring again.”