Investigations into the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, are at an early stage. The cause behind the crash of the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, a type which has had an impressive safety record since making first flight in 1977, remains unknown.
The chopper went down in Calabasas, about 48 kilometers northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
Bryant’s helicopter left Santa Ana shortly after 9 am and circled for a time just east of Interstate 5, near Glendale. Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank, just to the north, and Van Nuys, to the northwest.
After holding up the helicopter for other aircraft, they cleared the Sikorsky S-76 to proceed north along Interstate 5 through Burbank before turning west to follow US Route 101, the Ventura Highway.
Shortly after 9:40 am, the helicopter turned again, toward the southeast, and climbed to more than 2,000 feet above sea level. It then descended and crashed into the hillside at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24.
When it struck the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 160 knots (184 mph) and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the Flightradar24 data showed.
First responders after an emergency 911 call included 56 fire personnel — firefighters, a helicopter with paramedics, hand crews — and sheriff’s deputies.
At the time of the crash, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had grounded its own helicopters because of the poor weather conditions. The impact scattered debris over an area about the size of a football field, Villanueva said.
Among other things, investigators will look at the pilot’s history, the chopper’s maintenance history, and the records of its owner and operator, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said at a news conference.
Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps, said weather may have contributed to the crash. Pilots can become disoriented in low visibility, losing track of which direction is up. Green said a pilot flying an S-76 would be instrument-rated, meaning they could fly the helicopter without relying on visual cues from outside.
Former pilot Kurt Deetz, who used to fly Bryant, told the LA Times that the crash was more likely caused by bad weather than engine or mechanical issues. “The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn’t happen,” he said.
Based on the flight path and the wide debris field, Deetz said that it appears the helicopter was traveling very fast at the time of impact, about 160 mph (260 kmph). After a 40-minute flight, the craft would have had about 800 pounds of fuel onboard. “That’s enough to start a pretty big fire,” he said.
Bryant's specific helicopter, registration number N72EX, was built in 1991 and was owned by Island Express Holding Corporation, a private helicopter transport company.
Despite a stellar safety record, there have been crashes of the S76 in the past most notably in 2017 in Turkey. It reportedly happened due to poor visibility and pilot error.
The former Lakers star would use the chopper during his playing days to get from his home in Orange County to Staples Center to beat the city traffic and even lent it out to teammates to get to doctor appointments. In 2012, Lakers point guard Steve Blake suffered an abdominal strain and Bryant came to his rescue for the journey to Orange County for a quick turnaround.
With inputs from AP
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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2020 13:57:53 IST