Investigators: No Engine Failure in Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash

(CN) — Investigators found no sign of engine failure in debris from a helicopter that crashed last month and killed NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others, the National Transportation Safety Board reported Friday.

Investigators are still working to determine the cause of the Jan. 26 crash and whether heavy fog may have played a role in the accident. The NTSB released an 11-page preliminary report with details on the aircraft, pilot, flight path, crash site and witness statements.

In this June 14, 2009, photo, Los Angles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant celebrates with his daughter Gianna, following the Lakers 99-86 defeat of the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Amway Arena in Orlando. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

A mountain biker told investigators he saw a fast-moving helicopter dart downward out of the fog for one to two seconds before it smashed into the Santa Monica Mountains at 9:45 a.m. The wreckage was found in a mountain biking park in the foothills near the city of Calabasas in Los Angeles County.

The helicopter was flying north along Highway 101, ascending to 4,000 feet, when it suddenly made a sharp left turn and started quickly descending at a rate of 4,000 feet per minute.

Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were flying to a girls basketball tournament at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks with five other passengers.

The helicopter was operated by Island Express Helicopters, which has had five crashes since 1985, including the one that killed Bryant. A former Federal Aviation Administration inspector told The New York Times this week he had issues with Island Express’ management after a fatal crash in 2008. The inspector, Gary Lackey, said the company resisted spending the money required to improve safety.

Pilot Ara Zobayan had worked for Island Express for a decade and had 8,200 hours of flight experience. The 50-year-old completed a training course in May 2019 on flying in low-visibility conditions and received “satisfactory grades” for maneuvers performed in that training.

The impact of the crash left a 24- by 15-foot wide crater 2 feet deep in the hillside. The main wreckage was found about 127 feet from the indentation. Investigators found a tree branch cut in three locations, indicating that the engine was working and rotors turning when the impact occurred. A visual inspection of the engines also showed “no evidence of an uncontained or catastrophic internal failure.”

The helicopter did not have a “black box” that records flight data which can be reviewed after an accident. The chopper was not required to contain that device.

Additionally, the aircraft lacked a Terrain Awareness and Warning System, which alerts an aircraft when it is in danger of hitting the ground. The NTSB has recommended the system be mandatory for helicopters, but the FAA only requires it for air ambulances. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, both California Democrats, have called for the FAA to mandate the devices in the wake of the tragedy.

The deaths shocked Los Angeles and the sporting world, prompting memorials spanning the city and tributes at the Super Bowl and other games. A public memorial for Bryant and the other victims is scheduled for Feb. 24 at the Staples Center, the arena where Bryant starred for the Los Angeles Lakers for most of his two-decade career. The date 2/24 corresponds with Bryant’s No. 24 jersey and the No. 2 worn by Gianna.

A public memorial for Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and daughter Alyssa will be held Feb. 10 at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. Also killed in the crash were Bryant friends Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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