Kobe Bryant helicopter crash: New NTSB documents appear to point to pilot disorientation in fog
Kobe Bryant was a legend to the world, but to his daughter Gianna Bryant, he was so much more. USA TODAY
The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant descended steeply and crashed, killing all nine passengers aboard, even though its pilot said in his last radio transmission that he was climbing to 4,000 feet, documents released Wednesday by federal investigators show.
The pilot never told air traffic controllers about plans to turn and descend after they asked him about his intentions once he was at the new, high altitude, raising new questions about whether he could have become disoriented as a fog layer hung over a valley near Calabasas, California, that quiet Sunday morning in January.
The details are part of approximately 1,700 pages of documents, maps, interview and text message transcripts released by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB, however, offered no analysis or conclusions, which it said will come later.
Taken together, however, the documents shed more light on the crash that killed retired NBA superstar Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, six friends and the pilot, Ara Zobayan. The tragedy resulted in The documents show there was little to indicate trouble was ahead.
More: final exchange of radio transmissions, Zobayan got permission from controllers to fly visually, hugging the ground to avoid a layer of fog above him, and using a freeway below to navigate. About four minutes later, just before communications were lost at 9:45 a.m. PST on Jan. 26, a controller asked Zobayan, using the call sign N72EX, what what he planned to do.
"Uh, we climbing to 4,000," came the reply. Then the controller asked Zobayan's intentions when he reached that altitude. No reply came back.
A graphic of the large Sikorsky S-76B's final minutes shows it climbing as it swings left away from the freeway and flew straight up the valley. But then it inexplicably descended in another left turn — one that would prove fatal. The copter crashed into the top of a hill with such force that some of the wreckage was thrown over the crest, NTSB investigators said at the time.
The events leading up to the flights were uneventful, the documents show. Zobayan, 50, had 8,577 total hours of flight time, including 1,250 hours in the S-76. He had only one mark on his record, having been dinged for flying in controlled airspace without getting permission in 2015, for which he received counseling and additional training. He had flown the same group to the same destination, an airport in Camarillo, California, the day before the crash without incident.
At least weather-wise, Zobayan expected the next day to be an improvement. In a text sent to him the evening before the crash asking him about the weather, Zobayan replied that he had just checked and it was "Not the best day tomorrow but it is not as bad as today." In the morning, he texted that weather "should be OK."
Controllers said they had the copter in sight when it was ordered to be in the vicinity of the airport, but lost sight as it proceeded toward its destination. Later, word spread among them that the crash had occurred.