Nearly two weeks after Kobe Bryant’s death, there are still some lingering questions about the helicopter crash that took his life. The world was shocked last month when the NBA legend, his daughter and seven others were killed in the horrific crash. With preliminary investigations over, many are now piecing together the details of the tragedy.
Bryant’s death had a profound impact on people around the world, and proved his legendary status in both the NBA and pop culture as a whole. It was even more tragic as it cost the life of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who was a familiar sight to fans who had seen her sitting with Bryant at basketball games in recent years.
Part of what made Bryant such a beloved figure off the court was his dedication as a father and family man. Bryant had famously said that he loved being a “girl dad” with four daughters, and went far out of his way to spend as much time with them as possible.
That was the very reason Bryant was on a helicopter that Sunday. In a 2018 interview on The Corp, Bryant explained that he began taking helicopters frequently because it maximized the amount of time he could “still train and focus on the craft, but not compromise family time.”
“So, that’s when I looked into helicopters,” he said. “[I’d] be able to get down and back in fifteen minutes. And that’s when it started. So my routine was always the same: weights early in the morning, kids to school, fly down, practice like crazy, do my extra work — media, everything I needed to do — fly back, get back in the carpool line and pick the kids up.”
“My wife was like ‘listen, I can pick them up,'” Bryant recalled. “I’m like, ‘no no no! I want to do that. Because you know, you have road trips and times when you don’t see your kids, man. So like, every time I got the chance to see them and spend time with them, even if it’s 20 minutes in the car… like, I want that.”
Sadly, last month’s helicopter flight was the last one Bryant ever took. Here is what we know so far about the tragic crash.
A Sikorsky S-76 helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California at 9:06 a.m. PT on Sunday, Jan. 26. It was carrying Bryant, Gianna and two of Gianna’s youth basketball teammates, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester. It was also carrying their parents, Kery and John Altobelli, Sarah Chester and the girls’ basketball coach, Christina Mauser, according to The Los Angeles Times.
The pilot was Ara Zobayan, an experienced helicopter pilot who had over 8,200 hours of flight time logged, according to CNN. They were all heading to Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park, where Gianna’s team was to play in a basketball tournament that day. Bryant and Mauser were the team’s coaches.
The same flight had been made several times before. According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, it had take only 30 minutes the previous day.
Flight conditions were poor even before the helicopter took off on Jan. 26. The Los Angeles Police Air Support Division had already grounded its helicopters that morning, and Zobayan was reportedly cleared to fly only with Special Visual Flight Rules, or VFR.
The helicopter encountered worsening conditions as it approached the Los Angeles area, including heavy fog and light rain. It was forced to take detours, and a report by New York Magazine noted that Bryant’s celebrity status would not have given the aircraft any priority treatment in these circumstances.
In spite of the poor flying conditions, there was heavy air traffic over southern California that day. Bryant was not the only star who used helicopters to avoid the infamous L.A. traffic. According to TMZ, the helicopter circled over the Los Angeles Zoo for several minutes while waiting for the traffic to pass.
According to a report by Sky Sports, Zobayan informed the nearby Burbank Airport control tower of his situation. They responded by telling him that he was “flying too low” to be tracked by radar. Zobayan then turned south out of the fog, flying towards the mountains.
At 9:40 a.m., Zobayan began climbing rapidly in elevation, taking the helicopter from 1,200 feet to 2,000 feet at about 185 miles per hour.
The helicopter crashed at 9:45 a.m. on the side of a mountain in Calabasas, California. It landed in an unpopulated area full of dry brush, igniting a brush fire that soon covered about a quarter-acre of land. Bryant, Gianna and the rest of the people onboard are believed to have died on impact. Their official cause of death was defined as blunt force trauma.
The crash site was about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and only about 17 miles from its final destination by air. It is still an active investigation scene and is closed to the public.
Eye witnesses who were mountain biking in the area reportedly called the authorities at 9:47 a.m. The Los Angeles Fire Department responded to the scene first, fighting the blaze from the outside. Paramedics rappelled directly to the crash from a helicopter overhead, but found no survivors.
The fire was reportedly very difficult to extinguish due to the presence of magnesium on the scene. It was not put out until 10:30 a.m.
The crash is still under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI. The helicopter was not equipped with a black box, so there is no definitive record of what transpired in the minutes leading up to the crash.
Experts first speculated that the combination of fog and mountainous terrain disoriented Zoboyan, who was relying on Special VFR to find his way. However, according to The L.A. Times, witnesses said the helicopter sounded like it was “struggling” before it crashed.
“It [didn’t] sound right and it was real low. I saw it falling and spluttering. But it was hard to make out as it was so foggy,” local many Jerry Kocharian told the Times.
Fans are still mourning Bryant and looking for ways to honor him two weeks later. The investigation continues as well.