Engine failure does not appear to be a factor in the helicopter crash that killed Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna along with seven others last month, the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday.
Intense fog is thought to have been a major factor in the accident that occurred on hilly terrain near Calabasas, California. Although the weather had grounded police helicopters in the area, Bryant’s pilot had received special clearance to fly in difficult conditions shortly before takeoff.
The aircraft, a Sikorsky S-76B, slammed into a hill where it was “destroyed by impact forces and fire,” the NTSB said. Its engine appeared to be working, as an examination of “the main and tail rotor assemblies found damage consistent with powered rotation at the time of impact,” according to the agency.
At the initial point of impact, investigators found “highly fragmented cabin and cockpit debris,” while the main wreckage was found 127 feet away and consisted of the tail, both engines, avionics boxes and portions of the cockpit instrument panel. The cockpit “experienced extreme fragmentation” and its instrument panel was destroyed.
The entire cabin, along with both engines, burst into flames after the crash, the agency said.
Pilot Ara Zobayan, who served as chief pilot for Island Express Helicopters, the company that operated the craft, had logged more than 8,000 hours of flight time and worked as a flight instructor. But even experienced pilots can become confused in dense fog, and once that happens, it leaves just seconds for a reaction.
“Once you get disoriented, your body senses completely tell you the wrong thing. You have no idea which way is up or down,” Randy Waldman, a helicopter flight instructor in Los Angeles, told The Associated Press.
“A lot of times, somebody who’s doing it for a living is pressured to get their client to where they have to go,” Waldman explained. “They take chances that maybe they shouldn’t take.”
Bryant, 41, was headed to his Mamba Sports Academy ― a youth sports center he founded in Thousand Oaks, California ― where Gianna, 13, was supposed to play a basketball game on Jan. 26. Bryant frequently chartered the Sikorsky to avoid traffic.
Also aboard was Orange Coast College’s head baseball coach, John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, a coach at the youth sports center; and parent Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton.
“Our investigators have already developed a substantial amount of evidence about the circumstances of this tragic crash,” NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said in a statement. “And 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.”
The agency plans to eventually issue a full report.
The helicopter was not required to have a flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder and did not have either device. The NTSB noted in its statement, however, that it has been telling the Federal Aviation Administration for 20 years that such recorders should be required on helicopters.
A memorial for Bryant will be held Feb. 24 at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, his former home court. The date represents his last jersey number.