Probe finds no engine failure in helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, eight others

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LOS ANGELES — Wreckage from the helicopter that crashed and killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others did not show any sign of engine failure, the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday.

A witness told the NTSB the hillside where the crash occurred was shrouded in mist when he heard the helicopter approaching. It sounded normal and he then saw the blue-and-white aircraft emerge from the fog moving forward and down. Within 2 seconds it slammed into the hillside just below him.

The Jan. 26 crash in Calabasas, just outside Los Angeles, occurred as the group was flying to a girls basketball tournament at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy. He coached his 13-year-old daughter Gianna’s team, which was scheduled to play. She and two teammates were among the nine people killed.

The deaths shook Los Angeles and the sporting world. A public memorial for Bryant and the other victims is scheduled for Feb. 24 at the Staples Center. The arena is where Bryant starred for the Los Angeles Lakers for most of his two-decade career and the date 2/24 corresponds with the No. 24 jersey he wore and the No. 2 worn by Gianna.

The NTSB issued an investigative update that included factual details. Findings about a cause for the crash isn’t expected for a year or more.

Investigators said the twin-engine Sikorsky S-76B was traveling at more than 180 mph (290 kph) and 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) per minute when it crashed. The helicopter’s instrument panel was destroyed and most of the devices were displaced. The flight controls were broken and suffered fire damage.

Investigators believe that since a tree branch at the crash site was cut, the engines were working and rotors turning at the time of impact. All four of the helicopter’s blades had similar damage, the report stated.

John Cox, an aviation-safety consultant, said the NTSB’s report was further indication that the pilot likely became disoriented in the thick fog and clouds. The pilot had told air-traffic controllers he was climbing to 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) — presumably to get above the cloud layer. The helicopter began turning left, then descended rapidly.

Cox called the aircraft’s path “classic symptoms” of a disoriented pilot.

Ara Zobayan was a regular pilot for Bryant and the chief pilot for Island Express Helicopters. He had more than 8,200 hours of flight time. He was additionally certified to fly solely using instruments — a more difficult rating to attain that allows pilots to fly at night and through clouds when the ground isn’t visible — and was a pilot to other celebrities including Kawhi Leonard and Kylie Jenner.

The 50-year-old Zobayan’s most recent flight review included training on inadvertently flying into bad weather conditions. It covered how to recover if the aircraft’s nose is pointed too far up or down, and what to do if the helicopter banks severely to one side. He earned satisfactory grades in the review, which took place in May 2019.

Bryant’s helicopter did not have a device called the Terrain Awareness and Warning System that signals when an aircraft is in danger of hitting ground. The NTSB has recommended the system be mandatory for helicopters but the Federal Aviation Administration only requires it for air ambulances. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, both California Democrats, have called for the FAA to mandate the devices in the wake of the tragedy.

It’s not clear if the warning system would have averted the crash. The helicopter was also not required to have a black box.

A public memorial for Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and daughter Alyssa will be held Feb. 10 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Also killed in the crash were Bryant’s friend and assistant coach, Christina Mauser, and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton, 14.

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Associated Press Writers John Antczak in Los Angeles, Bernard Condon in New York and David Koenig in Dallas and Business Writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed.