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Feds expected to announce potential cause of Kobe Bryant helicopter crash

Published: Updated:

In the year since the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant crashed into a hillside on a foggy morning, killing all nine aboard, there’s been plenty of finger-pointing over the cause of the tragedy.

Bryant’s widow blamed the pilot. She and families of other victims also faulted the companies that owned and operated the helicopter. The brother of the pilot didn’t blame Bryant but said he knew the risks of flying. The helicopter companies said the weather was an act of God and blamed air traffic controllers.

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On Tuesday, federal safety officials are expected to announce the long-awaited probable cause of the crash that unleashed worldwide grief for the retired basketball star, launched several lawsuits and prompted state and federal legislation.

“I think the whole world is watching because it’s Kobe,” said Ed Coleman, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor and safety science expert.

Flowers are placed in honor of Kobe Bryant, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Calabasas, Calif., at the site of a helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others one year ago. (AP)
Flowers are placed in honor of Kobe Bryant, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Calabasas, Calif., at the site of a helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others one year ago. (AP)

Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on January 26, 2020, when the helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.

Pilot Ara Zobayan climbed sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Calabasas hills below, killing all nine aboard instantly before flames engulfed the wreckage.

There was no sign of mechanical failure, and it was believed to be an accident, the National Transportation Safety Board has said.

The board is likely to make nonbinding recommendations to prevent future crashes when it meets remotely Tuesday.

Personnel collect debris while working with investigators at the helicopter crash site of NBA star Kobe Bryant in Calabasas, California. (File photo: Reuters)
Personnel collect debris while working with investigators at the helicopter crash site of NBA star Kobe Bryant in Calabasas, California. (File photo: Reuters)

The NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates crashes but has no enforcement powers. It can only submit suggestions to bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration or the Coast Guard, which have repeatedly rejected some of the board’s safety recommendations after other disasters.

One recommendation could be for helicopters to have a Terrain Awareness and Warning System, a device that signals when an aircraft is in danger of crashing. The helicopter didn’t have the system, which the NTSB has recommended as mandatory for helicopters. The FAA only requires it for air ambulances.

Federal lawmakers have sponsored the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act to mandate the devices on all helicopters carrying six or more passengers.

Former NTSB Chairman James Hall said he hopes the FAA will require the systems as a result of the crash.

“Historically, it has required high-profile tragedies to move the regulatory needle forward,” he said.

The devices, known as TAWS, cost upward of $35,000 per helicopter and require training and maintenance.

Mourners gather in Microsoft Square near the Staples Center to pay respects to Kobe Bryant after a helicopter crash killed the retired basketball star, in Los Angeles. (Reuters)
Mourners gather in Microsoft Square near the Staples Center to pay respects to Kobe Bryant after a helicopter crash killed the retired basketball star, in Los Angeles. (Reuters)

Helicopter Association International discouraged what it called a “one solution fits all” method. President and CEO James Viola said in a statement that mandating specific equipment to the entire industry is “ineffective” and “potentially hazardous.”

Even though Zobayan was flying at low altitude in a hilly area, the warning system may not have prevented the crash, Coleman said. The terrain could have triggered the alarm “constantly going off” and distracted the pilot or prompted him to lower its volume or ignore it, the Embry-Riddle safety science professor said.

Federal investigators said Zobayan, an experienced pilot who often flew Bryant, may have “misperceived” the angles at which he was descending and banking, which can occur when a pilot becomes disoriented in low visibility, according to NTSB documents.

The others killed were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.

Read more:

One year since Kobe Bryant’s death: NBA legend’s life in photos

Wife of late NBA star Kobe Bryant sues helicopter operator after crash

NBA All-Star game crowd chant ‘Kobe, Kobe, Kobe’ in honor of fallen legend