On April 13, 2016, Kobe Bryant gazed upon his adoring fans, soaked in the atmosphere, and uttered the words, “Mamba Out”. Ever the showman, the “Black Mamba” dazzled the Staples Center one last time for 60 points in a come-from-behind victory over the Utah Jazz. On that joyous night, the future hall-of-fame, 5-time NBA Champion, and 18-time NBA All-star, left everything on the court.
While no one could predict what would occur just three short years later, these words would prove to be haunting. In the time before Bryant’s helicopter crashed in the hills of Calabasas, a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, the basketball legend had quickly launched a second career as a successful venture capitalist, filmmaker, and devoted philanthropist. Bryant seemed to be on a mission to prove he wasn’t just an elite basketball player. And yet, the bright future Kobe had ahead was suddenly undone when he and eight others perished in a helicopter crash.
Unfortunately, the full NTSB investigation will likely take over a year to determine what caused the crash but investigators have already uncovered several potential reasons as to why the Sikorsky helicopter crashed into a sprawling hillside on that fateful Sunday morning.
The Crash: A Timeline of Events
On Sunday January 26th, Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others lifted off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. Their destination was Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, roughly 80 miles north of Bryant’s Newport Beach home. Bryant’s daughter Gianna and two of her teammates, who were also accompanied by their parents, had a basketball game later that day.
As the coach of his daughter’s elite, youth basketball team, Bryant needed to be on-time for the game. Due to Los Angeles’ infamous reputation as one of the most congested cities in the world, Bryant would often travel by helicopter.
9:06 AM: The helicopter, manned by veteran pilot Ara Zobayan, took off from John Wayne Airport, with a visibility of 5 miles.
9:21 AM: The Sikorsky helicopter maintained a holding pattern over Glendale while air traffic in the area cleared.
9:33 AM: When Zobayan finally received clearance to head into Burbank’s airspace, he requested special visual flight rules.
- Under special visual flight rules, a pilot is allowed to fly in weather conditions that are worse than what is allowed under visual flight rules as long as they are instrument rated. In conditions that call for special visual flight rules, a pilot relies on their visual surroundings as well as their instruments in order to avoid the terrain, powerlines, highrises, etc.
9:37 AM: Zobayan checked in with Van Nuys air traffic control. The air traffic controller reported that visibility was 2 1/2 miles and the skies were clear to about 1,100 feet above the ground.
9:44 AM: SoCal air traffic control contacted the helicopter to say it was too low for radar to provide traffic advisories. Air traffic control did not receive a response. This is likely due to the helicopter being too low for any radio transmission to be picked up.
9:45 AM: The helicopter crashed into a towering hillside outside of Calabasas. Moments before the crash, the Sikorsky helicopter climbed to an altitude of 2,300 feet and then rapidly dived at a rate of 2,000 feet per minute before crashing. Experts believe Zobayan climbed to avoid the dense fog that had now completely surrounded the helicopter.
Why Did the Sikorsky S-76B Knowingly Fly in Dangerous Conditions?
We may never know what Zobayan was thinking on that fateful day. Investigators rely on a plane or helicopter’s blackbox in order to analyze flight data and the conversation within the cockpit. Voice recordings are an invaluable resource for investigators to determine if there was a medical emergency, suspicious activity or pilot error.
The prevailing question on everyone’s mind is why the helicopter flew in such dangerous conditions to begin with? Before Zobayan even took off, LAPD choppers were grounded due to hazardous fog conditions. This would likely have been a major deterrent for a less experienced pilot, but Ara Zobayan was an industry veteran who had been entrusted by numerous VIPs.
Zobayan became a licensed commercial helicopter pilot in 2007 and worked for the helicopter tour company, Island Express for multiple years as its chief pilot. The experienced pilot had logged over 1,200 hours with the company and over 8,000 hours total since earning his pilot’s license. According to a coworker, Zobayan was the only pilot Bryant trusted to fly him.
Although the veteran helicopter pilot had been instrument rated since 2007 and had IFR
(instrument flight rules) clearance that day, Island Express was not IFR certified. Without IFR certification, instrument rated pilots employed by the company are not authorized to fly in this circumstance. Investigators have also shifted focus to the helicopter itself. The Sikorsky S-76B has an industry reputation for being safe and luxurious, but this particular helicopter wasn’t properly equipped for the conditions it was flying in.
The dual engine helicopter is often the go-to choice for VIPs. Island Express procured the nearly 30-year-old helicopter from the State of Illinois in 2015 and had used it ever since. While the helicopter may be considered one of the best helicopters in service, the Sikorsky S-76B that Bryant and the other passengers took was not outfitted with a recommended terrain warning system.
TAWS (Terrain Awareness Warning System) was recommended by the NTSB after a similar helicopter crashed in Texas in 2004. The FAA finally authorized air ambulances to outfit the system in 2014, but not private helicopters. Investigators cannot definitively conclude that having TAWS in place would have avoided the crash, but the added safety measure certainly would have helped. Jerry Kidrick, a retired Army colonel who flew helicopter missions in Iraq also noted that there can be immense pressure on pilots to fly VIPs, regardless of the conditions.
What Was Kobe Preoccupied With After the NBA?
Even though Bryant’s NBA days were over, the legendary guard’s business career was just getting started. If Kobe Bryant had simply retired from the NBA, he would have still been a very wealthy man. Kobe was the second highest paid basketball player of all time with $323 million in career earnings. The Black Mamba also made a reported $680 million in endorsements from his partnership with companies like Nike, Lenovo, Hublot, and Panini.
Bryant also proved to be a savy investor during and after his retirement as well. In 2013, Bryant founded Kobe Inc. as a way to invest in interesting concepts. Kobe’s first investment was a 10% stake of sports drink BodyArmour. When Coca-Cola purchased a majority stake in BodyAmour, Bryant’s investment stake grew from a $6 million valuation to $200 million. Bryant also partnered with famed investor Jeff Stibel in 2013 to create the venture capital firm Bryant Stibel. The fund has invested in over a dozen tech, media, and data startups.
Outside of the business world, Kobe founded Granity Studios, a movie studio dedicated to capturing the experience of professional athletes. In 2018, Bryant won an Academy Award for best animated short film with “Dear Basketball”. The film is a short documentary of Kobe’s dream as a young boy to one day play in the NBA and is based on a letter Bryant authored that was published in The Players’ Tribune in 2015.
Ever the philanthropist, Bryant partnered with Chinese tech giant Alibaba to spread the game of basketball in China. Kobe also raised over $81 million for cancer research, founded a youth soccer club for the children of Orange County, started a foundation with his wife to aid the less fortunate, and visited over 200 kids who were battling life-threatening illnesses.
The Legacy of Those Onboard
Even though it is unclear why the Sikorsky helicopter would fly in such dangerous conditions and without the proper certification, one thing is for certain, the world will certainly miss the nine lives lost in the crash.
Kobe’s daughter Gianna dreamt of one day becoming a professional basketball player and had a very close relationship with her father. John Altobelli coached the Orange Coast College baseball team for 27 years, even coaching the likes of MLB All-Stars Aaron Judge and Jeff McNeil. John’s youngest daughter Alyssa and wife Keri also died in the crash.
Christina Mauser was an assistant coach of the girls’ basketball team and a devoted mother and wife. Sarah Chester and her daughter Peyton perished in flight as well. Sarah was on the board of trustees at the school where her daughter was in 8th grade. All nine are tragically gone too soon.
Stay with AskMrFranchise.com for vital updates on the crash investigation.
By Tyler Dikun and Jim Notaris