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What went wrong in Kobe Bryant's fateful helicopter flight?

Henry Bushnell
·10-min read

On Jan. 26, 2020, as morning fog gave way to afternoon sun, the National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a “go team” to Southern California. There, in Calabasas, at 9:45 a.m., a helicopter had slammed into a hillside. Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others had been killed. Hours later, as trauma and grief spread worldwide, the NTSB began its highest-profile investigation ever.

A year later, that investigation remains open. Closure will likely come soon. A Feb. 9 NTSB meeting will “determine the probable cause” of the crash.

But in the meantime, evidence has been trickling out. Yahoo Sports reviewed all of it — thousands of pages of documents, air traffic control recordings, videos and more — to analyze the fatal flight. And as Patrick Bailey, one of several experts interviewed for this story, told us: “You can gain enough from the preliminary [reports] to know exactly what happened.”

The flight

At around 9:06 on a Sunday morning, with the Mamba Sports Academy waiting 90 miles away, helicopter N72EX took off from John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California. And for 13 minutes, it cruised over flat land, beneath an overcast SoCal sky. The first half of the flight was uneventful. Chapels, hospitals and schools whizzed by.

At 9:20, the chopper zoomed past Dodger Stadium. Its pilot, Ara Zobayan, radioed into Burbank air traffic control. He circled over Glendale, at the controller’s request, waiting for clearance. By 9:35, it came, and he continued on his way.

Zobayan and the passengers followed Interstate 5 northbound, then joined up with Highway 118. They looped around Van Nuys Airport, and back down to Highway 101, at an altitude of roughly 1,500 feet. They’d arrive at Gianna’s youth basketball tournament around 10 a.m., surely, with plenty of time before the noon tip-off. Kobe had pushed up departure time by 45 minutes, because he’d wanted to watch an earlier game. It appeared, despite the delay over Glendale, that he’d get his wish.

But it’s here, as the 101 meandered through foothills, that the flight went awry. At 9:42 a.m., terrain began to rise. At 9:44:17, the chopper was some 300 feet above the ground. Around 15 seconds later, with fog inhibiting visibility, Zobayan told air traffic control: “We’re gonna go ahead and start our climb to go above the layers.”

(NTSB)
(NTSB)

And climb he did, from 1,400 feet to 1,600, then 1,900, then 2,300, through a cloud layer that topped out around 2,400 feet. At 9:44:40 a.m., the helicopter was below the clouds. At 9:45:15, it was perhaps a few dozen feet from bursting through them.

But it was still enveloped by them.

And it was also turning.

“Climbing to four thousand,” Zobayan told air traffic control. But he wasn’t anymore. He was descending, veering left off the 101, and then plummeting into Calabasas Hills.

An NTSB diagram shows the helicopter's approximate position in space over the final two minutes of the flight.
An NTSB diagram shows the helicopter's approximate position in space over the final two minutes of the flight.

Witnesses described the helicopter roaring “thick in the clouds,” “on a south to easterly sweep,” then emerging on a dive toward the hillside. Nearby security cameras captured the sound: A monotone buzz, then a loud crackle-thud, then silence.

Why did the helicopter crash?

We will never know precisely what happened in those final moments. We’ll certainly never know why it happened. But the NTSB has painted a relatively thorough picture. Weather clearly played a role. Footage from a fixed camera 1.8 miles east of the accident site shows a valley almost completely obscured by haze.

(Bloomsky/NTSB)
(Bloomsky/NTSB)

Other videos, from roadside cameras and car dashcams, show mist cloaking mountains in the distance. One shows the helicopter flying through fog at roughly 9:44 a.m.

(City of Calabasas/NTSB)
(City of Calabasas/NTSB)

A local pastor told Yahoo Sports that it was so foggy that morning that catching a punt would have been almost impossible. A local cyclist told investigators that he’d canceled his morning ride because he feared drivers wouldn’t be able to see him. This is what Zobayan encountered as he headed west over the 101.

Per visual flight rules, Zobayan had to fly below the clouds, with his eyes on the road beneath him. But at some point, aviation experts say, he likely felt he no longer could. Either he felt his gap narrowing between ground and clouds, or sensed the fog around him thickening. So he tried to escape.

In an interview with investigators, an air traffic controller speculated that perhaps Zobayan spotted a break in the clouds. If not, he tried to climb through them. As he did, he either flew blindly into them; or he attempted a rapid switch to instrument-guided flight. And that, as former Naval pilot Chris Harmer says, is “very difficult.”

“The transition from flying with external reference to flying on your instruments can be very disorienting,” Harmer says.

The NTSB has a theory about disorientation as well. “Spatial disorientation,” to be more exact. “It's not uncommon at all” among pilots, explains J.F. Joseph, a retired Naval aviator. “It's basic human physiology. … When certain forces are implied on the body, that capacity to discern what's up and down, what's left and right, are not readily available.”

Investigators have explained, and independent experts confirm, that Zobayan might have experienced this in the clouds. The sensation is often, though not always, associated with vertigo. It could explain Zobayan’s left-hand turn — though that could have been part of his escape. And it likely explains his descent. No other potential explanation, mechanical or otherwise, has been found.

“You just don't make an incredibly steep descending turn like that on purpose,” says former NTSB investigator Jeff Guzzetti. “If he wants to do a 180 degree turn to get out, well then you don't descend, you just slow up and make a nice, level 180-degree turn. But that turn, the bank angle and the rate of descent was very excessive, which, in my mind, is indicative of loss of control.”

Should Kobe’s flight have been canceled due to weather?

So if the conditions that morning required such a risky escape, why did Zobayan fly in the first place?

Investigators have implicitly asked that question. And in a lawsuit filed last February, Vanessa Bryant argues that he shouldn’t have.

Weather was indeed a topic of discussion in the 16 hours leading up to the flight. Patti Taylor of OC Helicopters, Kobe’s travel broker, had laid out Sunday’s agenda the night before. And then she’d texted a group of Kobe’s travel coordinators: “Advised weather could be an issue .....”

Zobayan responded: “Copy. Will advise on weather early morning.” And at 7:30 a.m., he told the same group: “Weather looking ok.”

Thirty-five minutes earlier, he’d filled out a flight risk analysis form, and graded the trip a low-risk endeavor.

(NTSB)
Text messages from the morning of the flight show Ara Zobayan, the pilot, and Patti Taylor and Ric Webb, both of OC Helicopters, discussing weather. (NTSB)

But local forecasts had warned of dense fog and “low clouds likely pushing into the valleys of L.A.” Zobayan was at least somewhat aware of them. Twenty-four hours earlier, and on many sunny days prior, he’d flown Kobe and Gianna to the same destination, and taken a more direct route. This time, according to Ric Webb, owner of OC Helicopters, Zobayan “waved his finger across the map on his phone” and indicated that "the safest route was east and north,” “up and around” mountains and coastal fog.

Even that route, however, posed problems. Zobayan had clearance to fly special VFR, meaning he could venture into marginal conditions. But as he neared Burbank, an air traffic controller alerted him that IFR, instrument-only conditions lay ahead. Zobayan was an IFR-rated pilot. But his company’s certifications didn’t permit instrument flights. So it’s here, mid-flight, where experts see fault.

“I don't think it's an egregious decision the pilot made to begin the flight,” Guzzetti says. “He had a helicopter. He had a hell of a lot of experience. He was qualified. He had flown this route before. So I'm not that critical of the initial decision to take off.”

But when conditions worsened?

“He should’ve landed at Van Nuys,” says Robert Ditchey, an aviation consultant. “Period.”

The legal battle

Those decisions are key points of contention in a messy legal battle over responsibility for the crash. Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit alleges that “Zobayan failed to properly monitor and assess the weather prior to takeoff; … failed to obtain proper weather data prior to the flight; … failed to abort the flight when he knew of the cloudy conditions; [and] improperly flew the helicopter into instrument flight rules (IFR) conditions.”

Zobayan’s brother, as his next of kin, filed a response three months later. In it, his lawyers essentially claim that Kobe and the other passengers knew the risks of flying and were responsible for their own deaths.

Legal experts say that argument has no legs. But investigators have indeed probed Kobe’s role: Might his stature have pressured Zobayan into taking off?

Several sources, however, shot down that thought, and there’s no evidence to suggest it was a factor. Island Express, the company that employed Zobayan and operated the flight, provided flight records that show previous weather-related cancellations for Kobe, Kawhi Leonard, Lil’ Dicky and Kylie Jenner. Patti Taylor told investigators, “make no mistake, [Kobe] didn’t like being told no. But we told him no.”

Investigators have also questioned the “safety culture” at Island Express Helicopters. The company, Vanessa’s lawsuit claims, “failed to have in place an adequate safety policy.” Two employees — one former — in interviews with investigators, supported that claim. But most said the culture was strong.

A strong safety culture, however, would not absolve Island Express of blame. Legally, it is “vicariously liable” for the actions of its employee. Vanessa’s lawsuit also alleges that Zobayan “failed to properly and safely operate the helicopter, resulting in a crash.”

Island Express, in a cross-complaint, argues that two air traffic controllers might have contributed to Zobayan’s confusion. At 9:43, one relieved the other. At 9:44, when Zobayan informed them that he was climbing, he probably expected to connect with the controller he’d spoken to four minutes earlier.

Instead, the new controller told him to identify his aircraft, then asked him two questions mid-climb. Right after the second one, the helicopter began descending.

An NTSB graph lines air traffic control communication up with the helicopter's final climb and descent. Black words are Zobayan's. Green words are air traffic control's.
An NTSB graph lines up air traffic control communication with the helicopter's final climb and descent. Black words are Zobayan's. Green words are air traffic control's.

But the air traffic controllers, according to experts, almost surely aren’t solely responsible for the accident.

Every aviation expert interviewed for this story believed that this was a tragic case of “pilot error” — that, at around 9:45 a.m. that day, Zobayan lost control of the helicopter. In less than 20 seconds, according to flight-tracking data, he went from nearly clear of the clouds to crashing into the hillside.

Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg contributed to this report.

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