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The helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, was climbing through a cloud layer and just 100 feet from breaking through the top when it began a left turn and descended into terrain, according to new information released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
An investigative update published on Feb. 7 includes a description of the accident wreckage, witness photos, and an account of the pilot’s final flight path and radio transmissions. The Sikorsky S-76B was transporting Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and six friends to a youth basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks when the accident occurred.
As was previously reported, pilot Ara Zobayan received a special visual flight rules (VFR) clearance through Burbank airspace at 9:32 a.m., after holding for approximately 12 minutes for instrument flight rules (IFR) traffic. At 9:39 a.m., he told an air traffic controller at neighboring Van Nuys Airport that he was in VFR conditions at an altitude of 1,500 feet mean sea level (MSL).
The controller advised Zobayan to contact Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (SCT) for radar advisory services, which he did. However, the SCT controller told him that he would not be able to maintain radar contact at Zobayan’s altitude of 1,500 MSL, and terminated services.
According to the NTSB, the SCT controller was subsequently relieved by a different controller. At 9:45 a.m., Zobayan again contacted SCT, reported he was climbing above cloud layers, and requested advisory services. The new controller asked Zobayan to identify the flight and declare his intentions, to which Zobayan replied he was climbing to 4,000 feet. There were no further transmissions from the helicopter.
Radar and automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) data indicate the aircraft was climbing westbound along a course aligned with Highway 101 just east of the exit for Las Virgenes Road, which leads south through the Santa Monica Mountains toward Malibu. Between Las Virgenes and Lost Hills Road, the helicopter reached an altitude of 2,300 feet MSL — approximately 1,500 feet above the highway — and began a left turn.
Eight seconds later, the aircraft began descending as the left turn continued. The descent rate increased to over 4,000 feet per minute and the ground speed reached 168 knots. The last ADS-B target was received at 1,200 feet MSL around 400 feet from the crash site.
A nearby camera installed for purposes of wildfire detection captured an image of the cloud layer to the east at roughly the same time as the accident. The National Weather Service (NWS) analyzed the top of the cloud layer to be about 2,400 feet MSL — just 100 feet above the maximum altitude attained by the S-76.
Videos and photos taken by members of the public in the area of the accident depict fog and low clouds obscuring the hilltops. A security video from a road maintenance yard near Highway 101 captured the helicopter proceeding westward along the highway and disappearing into the clouds.
A witness on a mountain bike trail near the accident site saw the helicopter descend from the clouds and “roll to the left such that he caught a glimpse of its belly” before it struck terrain about 50 feet (15 meters) below his position, creating a sizable impact crater and post-crash fire.
Despite considerable fire damage, the NTSB reported that all significant components of the helicopter were located within the wreckage area. Examination of the main and tail rotor assemblies suggested powered rotation at the time of impact, and there was no obvious evidence of engine failure.
The NTSB confirmed that the operator of the S-76, Island Express Helicopters, held a part 135 operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for VFR-only operations. The helicopter itself was equipped with systems and instrumentation to enable IFR flight, including a four-axis automatic flight control system, electronic flight instrument system, radio altimeter, and flight management system. Maintenance records indicated that the aircraft had no outstanding airworthiness directives or minimum equipment list items, and all inspections were up to date.
Zobayan — who had reported 8,200 hours of total flight experience and logged about 1,250 hours in the S-76 — held helicopter instrument and instrument instructor ratings. His most recent flight review had been conducted by EuroSafety International in May 2019, and included proficiency training for inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) and unusual attitude recovery.
According to NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt, the agency’s investigators “have already developed a substantial amount of evidence about the circumstances of this tragic crash. 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,” he stated in a press release.
The investigative update and press release reiterate that the helicopter was not equipped with a flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder– the proverbial “black boxes” that provide valuable information for investigations of commercial airline crashes. The NTSB has been recommending since 1999 that the FAA mandate such recorders on helicopters, and board member Jennifer Homendy said in a Jan. 28 press conference that an FDR/CVR “would have helped us significantly in this investigation, and other investigations, and it’s something we’ve recommended several times over a number of years.”
Notably absent from the press release or report, however, was any mention of terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS). In the same press conference, Homendy called out the absence of TAWS on the accident helicopter, and the fact that the NTSB has long recommended this equipment for turbine-powered rotorcraft with six or more passenger seats.
Homendy’s comments led to a flurry of media attention on TAWS. On Jan. 30, U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman announced the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act, which would direct the FAA to coordinate with the NTSB on new helicopter safety standards, including a requirement for TAWS (which is currently mandated by the FAA only for air ambulance helicopters).
The value of TAWS in the helicopter industry is still controversial, as low-flying helicopters typically experience more nuisance alerts with the technology than the fixed-wing aircraft for which TAWS was originally designed. While the NTSB has identified a number of helicopter accidents which might have been avoided with TAWS, it also concluded that a TAWS obstacle alert may have actually contributed to one fatal helicopter air ambulance crash in Tennessee in 2015.
In the press conference on Jan. 28, investigator-in-charge Bill English cautioned that it was too early to say whether TAWS might have prevented the Calabasas crash.
“There’s many variables here, and we don’t even have a conclusion that TAWS and this scenario are related to each other,” he said.