Kobe Bryant crash: Everything we know and the unanswered questions

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Kobe Bryant Crash (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Kobe Bryant Crash (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

More than a year after the fatal helicopter crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven other passengers, the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings on the events that led up to the crash.

The agency determined that the pilot flew into fog and likely became disoriented before smashing into a hillside near Calabasas, California, killing everyone aboard.

The crash shocked the legions of Mr Bryant's fans, who spent weeks after the crash honoring his memory alongside celebrities and superstar athletes.

The incident resulted in nine lawsuits filed by the families of the victims, including Mr Bryant's wife, Vanessa.

The crash

On 26 January, Mr Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, her basketball coach and fix other passengers boarded a Sikorsky S-76b helicopter and departed from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06am.

The group was headed to Mr Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park to attend a basketball game. Mr Bryant was going to coach his daughter's team later that day.

Weather conditions on the day of the crash forced the pilot, Ara Zobayan, to fly just 800ft (240m) above the ground in order to avoid flying into clouds, which is prohibited under visual flight rules.

Around 9:45am, the pilot told Southern California air traffic control that he planned to climb 1,000 feet to avoid a cloud layer. Just prior to this, SCT advised the pilot that he was nearing hilly terrain.

Mr Zobayan began to climb and planned to level out his flight at 4,000ft (1,200m). The helicopter gained 1,000ft of altitude in 36 seconds while turning left toward the south. Eight seconds later, the helicopter rapidly descended while it was still turning left.

It then smashed into the hillside, bursting into flames and killing everyone on board.

The other passengers killed in the crash 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 were also killed in the crash. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna's teammates

The NTSB believes that Mr Zobayan's stated intent to gain altitude, when compared against the reality that he was actually rapidly losing altitude, is evidence that he was disoriented by the cloud layer, resulting in the crash.

Investigators believe Mr Zobayan's business relationship with Mr Bryant may have influenced his decision to fly into weather conditions he was not cleared to operate in, and that the pilot would have known the conditions were unsafe.

“This weather did not sneak up on the pilot,” Bill English, the lead investigator on the case, said in his report.

Mr Zobayan, who was considered a capable pilot by colleagues, requested special permission to fly through low visibility areas on the day of the crash, but the company he operated for, Island Express Helicopters, was only licensed to operate under visual flight rules.

In aviation, flying under VFR requires pilots to operate under certain visibility conditions. IFR rules - Instrument flight rules - allow pilots to operate their crafts using only their instruments and the aid of air traffic control. IFR is often used in low-visibilty flight conditions.

According to the NTSB, there were no clear signs of engine failure contributing to the crash.

Response to the crash

The helicopter crashed between a group of mountain bikers, who called 911 to report the incident. Firefighters arrived on scene at 10:30am to fight a quarter acre fire the crash caused in the surrounding brush and to begin initial emergency response to the crash.

TMZ was the first outlet to report on the crash, issuing its first story just two hours after the crash. As a result, individuals hoping to catch a glimpse of the crash flooded the area, prompting the Los Angeles County Sheriff to issue a statement during a press conference asking people to stay away from the crash site, as the traffic was impeding emergency responders' access to the crash site.

All of the bodies were recovered by 28 January, and Mr Bryant, along with three others, were identified that day by the Medical Examiner's Office through fingerprints.

By that time news of the crash had already become a national story, and impromptu memorials for the basketball legend and the others killed in the crash were held throughout Los Angeles.

The investigation

The NTSB began investigating the crash in the days following the incident.

Witnesses to the crash told first responders that the helicopter's engine appeared to be sputtering in the moments before it crashed into the hillside.

The investigation was hindered when it was discovered that both the helicopter's "black box" - a device that stores flight data and is often pivotal in determining the causes of aircraft accidents - and its cockpit voice recorder were removed from the aircraft.

Both components are legally required for airliners, but the FAA does not require black boxes for helicopters like the one involved in the crash.

NTSB officials have called on the FAA to require the instruments on all aircraft.

The NTSB also found that the helicopter was not equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system, which alerts pilots to terrain dangers.

Similar to the black box and voice recorded, TAWS systems are not required by the FAA on aircraft like the helicopter in the accident.

“Certainly, TAWS could have helped to provide information to the pilot on what terrain the pilot was flying in,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said during a press conference last year.

Ultimately, the NTSB ruled that it was pilot disorientation, and not engine failure, that resulted in the crash.

The aftermath

In the weeks and months after the crash, numerous memorial services, both impromptu and official, were held to honor the victims of the crash.

The largest of the memorials was held at the Staples Center, where Mr Bryant played for the entirety of his 20 year basketball career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The service was held on 24 February, with the date holding special significance as 24 was Mr Bryant's number. More than 20,000 people attended the memorial.

At the same time, numerous lawsuits tied to the case were filed by the families of the victims, including Vanessa Bryant, Mr Bryant's wife.

Ms Bryant alleged that the crash could have been avoided and that the pilot showed poor judgement on the day of the accident.

"Plaintiffs' deceased, Kobe Bryant, was killed as a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan," the complaint alleged, "for which Defendant Island Express Helicopters is vicariously liable in all respects."

Family members of the other victims joined with Ms Bryant, resulting in a total of nine cases between state and federal courts.

Ms Bryant also sued the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department for allegedly sharing unauthorised photos of the crash scene, which she claims was a violation of her privacy that the sheriffs office had assured.

"In reality, however, no fewer than eight sheriff's deputies were at the scene snapping cell-phone photos of the dead children, parents, and coaches," the claim states, according to the Los Angeles Times. "As the department would later admit, there was no investigative purpose for deputies to take pictures at the crash site. Rather, the deputies took photos for their own personal purposes."

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva admitted that eight deputies had taken photos of the bodies at the crash scene and had shared them.

The police union representing the deputies also sued Mr Villanueva in an effort to keep the internal affairs investigation into the photo sharing scandal private.

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