Investigators are now poring over the scene where former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people died Sunday in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. The National Transportation Safety Board has sent a team to the site and is now leading the investigation.
The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter was flying in low clouds and fog, and was operating under “Special VFR” (or Special Visual Flight Rules) status, meaning its pilot had been granted a request to fly in challenging conditions. An aviation weather advisory for Sunday morning had warned that poor visibility would require Instrument Flight Rules.
The NTSB says it expects to hold a news conference about the crash at 7 p.m. ET Monday.
Here’s what we know about the crash:
The helicopter crashed in steep terrain in the mountains near the 4200 block of Las Virgenes Road in Calabasas. The crash was reported to the Los Angeles County Fire Department at 9:47 a.m. PT. The fiery wreckage ignited a small brush fire; county firefighters found no survivors.
- Kobe Bryant, 41
- Gianna Bryant, 13
- John Altobelli, Orange Coast College head baseball coach
- Kerri Altobelli, the coach’s wife
- Alyssa Altobelli, who was Gianna’s basketball teammate
The office of the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner says it will be updating with more information as it confirms identities and informs next of kin.
NTSB member Jennifer Homendy says a team of 18 people will investigate the crash. And while bad weather has repeatedly been cited as a potential cause, the team will look into numerous potential factors. At a news conference Sunday night, Homendy listed the investigators’ areas of expertise: “operations, human performance, airworthiness, structures and power plants.”
Homendy added that her team will also be looking at the pilot’s history, along with the helicopter’s maintenance records and records related to the aircraft’s owner and operator.
One NTSB staff member reached the crash site on Sunday; the rest of the team arrived in California late Sunday and held an organizational meeting Monday morning, to prepare for the complex inquiry.
When Homendy was asked whether the Sikorsky helicopter has a “black box” flight recorder, she said her team will work to determine whether it does.
The helicopter took off took off from the John Wayne Airport in Orange County; its destination was Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park. The aircraft headed northwest over Los Angeles, but as it flew west of Pasadena and south of Burbank, it circled several times over Glendale, after air traffic controllers asked the helicopter’s pilot to hold in place temporarily as planes maneuvered to land at a nearby airport.
According to reports, the pilot was Ara George Zobayan. The FAA database lists him as an instrument-rated commercial pilot licensed to fly helicopters. In addition, he was both a helicopter flight and ground instructor.
The helicopter eventually continued on in a northwesterly direction and then turned south; soon afterwards, it crashed in the mountains near Calabasas.
“The pilot in command is responsible for determining whether it is safe to fly in current and expected weather conditions,” said Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Pacific division.
The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter Bryant’s group was flying in was built in 1991. It was initially owned by the state of Illinois – but the state auctioned it off in the summer of 2015 for $515,161.
The winning bid came from a user named “Jimbagge1” – and Jim Bagge is an executive at Island Express Holding Corp., a California company that holds the registration for the helicopter: N72EX.
“Aircraft must be inspected annually or every 100 flight hours, whichever comes first,” the FAA’s Gregor said. “Additionally, certain parts must be replaced or overhauled at specific intervals. Maintenance records belong to the aircraft owner, who must make them available to the FAA for inspection upon request. The FAA looks at aircraft maintenance history as part of every accident investigation.”
NPR’s Russell D. Lewis contributed to this report.