Investigation piecing together Kobe Bryant's fateful flight may take over a year, authorities say

Mark Puleo

Footage, data, evidence and eyewitnesses continue to pour in surrounding the fatal helicopter crash on Sunday morning that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others. Authorities from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have held numerous briefings to address questions and update mourners from around the world on the latest findings the investigation has turned up.

Vanessa Bryant, wife of Kobe and mother of Gianna, took to Instagram to thank the millions of supporters around the world and share the family's devastation.

"We are completely devastated by the sudden loss of my adoring husband, Kobe - the amazing father of our children; and my beautiful, sweet Gianna - a loving, thoughtful, and wonderful daughter, and amazing sister to Natalia, Bianka, and Capri," Vanessa, 37, said. "We are also devastated for the families who lost their loved ones on Sunday, and we share in their grief intimately."

Although authorities from the NTSB addressed the public with new findings on both Monday and Tuesday, officials have said the full report with finalized findings, which will include the probable cause of crash, may not be released for another 12 to 18 months.

The NTSB, along with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), has worked together to gather information and the short-term findings have already helped paint a clearer picture of what doomed the helicopter.

On Tuesday, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy shared details surrounding the ground impact of the crash, including data that revealed that the helicopter was in a descending left bank as it began to crash. Homendy and investigators spent much of the early week at the crash site, analyzing wreckage and collecting debris.

NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy Kobe Bryant crash
NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy briefs reporters in California on January 28, 2020, about the latest on the investigation in the helicopter crash in Calabasas that killed Kobe Bryant, his teenage daughter and seven others. (NTSB)

"We know that the helicopter was at 2,300 feet when it lost communications with air traffic control," she said. "We know that the descent rate for the helicopter was over 2,000 feet per minute, so we know that this was a high-energy impact crash."

The data has helped investigators understand the pilot's final intentions. Authorities also shared that the crash occurred about 1,085 feet above sea level, missing the top of the hill by 20 to 30 feet. Parts of the aircraft found scattered around a crash site that stretched 500 to 600 feet.

"We also mentioned yesterday that the pilot had an iPad with ForeFlight on it, so we were looking for electronic devices as we always do. We were able to recover an iPad and a cell phone, we do not know if that's the pilot's iPad," Homendy said on Tuesday. "So we're going to take those personal electronic devices, we're going to send them back to our lab at headquarters for further analysis."

Numerous helpful mechanical bits of information, such as maintenance records, operating manuals, weight and balance sheets and airworthiness certificates were uncovered in the wreckage.

Investigators found that the privately owned Sikorsky S-76B helicopter had no black box on board, meaning there was no cockpit voice recording or flight data recorder for the teams to analyze.

While Homendy added that a preliminary report would be released in the coming week, she emphasized that the report would only share informational findings and not any analysis.

However, the most widely agreed-upon factor that led to the accident, according to experts and eyewitnesses, has been the thick fog that enveloped Southern California area that morning.

Webcam screenshots taken on Sunday morning from areas near the crash site in Calabasas depict the thick fog that shrouded Bryant's helicopter as it flew on the fateful morning of the flight. In fact, the NTSB issued an appeal to the public for help with better determining the weather conditions at the time of the crash.

"Speaking of weather, we have a request for the public. We are looking for photos of the weather in the area of the crash. If you have photos that can help us, again in the area of the crash, if you could send those photos to witness@ntsb.gov," Homendy said on Monday.

Video circulated on Tuesday night showing footage of Bryant's helicopter flying in the fog over Glendale, California. According to David Lyudmirsky, who posted the footage to Twitter, he went outside to film when he heard a thunderous noise over his house, which he described to the New York Post as comparable to a group of bikers.

Lyudmirsky's footage shows the aircraft circling sometime between 9:21 and 9:33 a.m. when the pilot awaited confirmation of clear airspace from controllers. The footage also uniquely depicted how low the helicopter was flying, adding to the thundering noise that drew Lyudmirsky's attention.

"I try and video /photograph all the weird stuff happening above my house in Glendale," Lyudmirsky wrote on Instagram. "Unfortunately this morning I didn't realize I was filming the helicopter Kobe Bryant, his daughter and others were in 31 minutes before they crashed."

New details have also emerged about veteran pilot Ara Zobayan, who also worked as a flight instructor Group 3 Aviation. Along with his 8,200 flight miles, as of last July, Homendy added on Tuesday night that Zobayan had recorded 1,250 hours of flight time in the S-76 helicopter.

She also shared that records showed Zobayan having successfully flown from John Wayne Airport to Camarillo just a day earlier, on Saturday, with a more direct flight path in clearer weather.

Earlier audio releases indicate that air traffic controllers (ATC) were communicating with Zobayan that he needed to fly above the cloud ceiling for flight following.

"Approximately four minutes later, the pilot advised they were climbing to avoid a cloud layer," Homendy said. "When ATC asked what the pilot planned to do, there was no reply."

Flight following, as Homendy described, is radar assistance for pilots in order to avoid airspace traffic.

"When air traffic control said they were too low, it wasn't that they were too low [to fly], it was that they were too low to provide flight following assistance," Homendy said.

Worldwide vigils have spread throughout major cities from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia, across continents, languages and have been impacting athletes across all different sports.

Similar memorials have poured out for the other eight victims of the accident, including Bryant's daughter Gianna. Legendary baseball coach John Altobelli was on the flight along with his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa, one of Gianna's basketball teammates. Another teammate, Payton Chester, was on the flight with her mother. The girls' coach, Christina Mauser, and the pilot, Zobayan, perished as well.

Zobayan is remembered by his colleagues and students as a top-notch, savvy pilot. Zobayan held the chief pilot position at Island Express Helicopters.

"The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was our chief pilot. Ara has been with the company for over 10 years and has over 8,000 flight hours," the company said in a statement. "We are working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate the cause of the accident and we are grateful to the first responders and local authorities for their response to this unimaginable accident."

According to The New York Times, a group of pilots gathered on Sunday at Group 3 Aviation, the flight school were Zobayan, 50, learned to fly in 1998. They said they were flummoxed by news of the tragic accident.

Ara Zobayan
An undated photo posted on Facebook by Group 3 Aviation shows helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan, who was at the controls of the helicopter that crashed in Southern California, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, killing all nine aboard including former Lakers star Kobe Bryant and his young daughter. (Facebook / Group 3 Aviation)

Zobayan had been a personal pilot for Bryant for years and also provided flights for fellow athletes like Kawhi Leonard celebrities such as Kylie Jenner. Jenner had most recently flown with him in November for her niece's third birthday party, she revealed in a post on Instagram.

"I still can't believe this. That was the helicopter I would fly on from time to time with that pilot, Ara," Jenner posted on Instagram. "He was such a nice man. Hold your loved ones close."

Leonard, who currently plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, also frequently flies to games as Bryant used to, and used Zobayan as a personal pilot as well.

"I had flown with him a lot," Leonard told reporters on Wednesday. "He was a great guy, super nice. He was one of the best pilots and that's the guy you asked for to fly you from to city to city... He would drop me off and tell me he was about to go pick up Kobe and Kobe said hello."

Going forward, Leonard said Sunday's tragedy would make him think harder about flying via helicopter.

Zobayan reportedly wanted to learn how to fly after taking a sightseeing flight over the Grand Canyon. He possessed the necessary certifications to fly under instrument meteorological conditions and taught other pilots who were working toward their own ratings.

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According to the FAA, he had no accidents or enforcement actions on his record. Fellow pilots lauded him for his precise caution and intelligence. The accident, particularly amid the conditions, has baffled many of his friends, such as Kurt Deetz, a former pilot of Bryant's, who told the New York Times that Zobayan "knew the weather patterns" of the region well.

Deetz told The Los Angeles Times that Zaboyan was Bryant's go-to pilot after Deetz left the company. One of those famous flights Zaboyan piloted for Bryant was to the legend's final NBA game, against the Utah Jazz on April 16, 2016.

Deetz also disputed the notion that the Los Angeles Police Department's decision to ground flights earlier that Sunday doesn't mean private pilots would always have canceled their flights as well, as the LAPD is overly cautious, according to Deetz.

On Tuesday night, Homendy echoed those sentiments, adding that the LAPD flies far different helicopters than the private aircrafts that Bryant used.

"It's an apples to oranges comparison. It's a different helicopter, different operations," she said. "We have to look at this specific crash, this specific helicopter."

"We've all been there ... I don't care if you've got 100 hours or 10,000 hours. It can happen to anyone," Deetz said, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Speaking to the LA Times, Deetz said Zaboyan's decision to continue flying through the conditions with such a high-profile passenger must have been a critical and difficult decision.

"Psychologically, that's the hardest part," Deetz said. "Biting the bullet and saying, ‘The weather's crap, I have to turn back.' It's hard to accept the fact you can't get the job done."

Meanwhile, Bryant's fans and contemporaries alike continued to process the news of the shocking tragedy and pay tribute to the fallen basketball legend. Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant's longtime teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers, delivered heartfelt remarks about the deep sense of loss he's struggled with since Sunday on Tuesday evening's edition of The NBA on TNT.

"I haven't felt a pain that sharp in a while," O'Neal said, tears streaming down his face. "It definitely changes me."

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