No Evidence of Catastrophic Engine Failure in Helicopter Crash That Killed Kobe Bryant, NTSB Says

February 7, 2020 Updated: February 8, 2020
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The National Transportation Safety Board, which is looking into the Jan. 26 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight other people in Southern California, announced Friday there was no evidence of catastrophic engine failure.

“Viewable sections of the engines showed no evidence of an uncontained or catastrophic internal failure,” the investigative update said.

Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the others died in the Jan. 26 crash in Calabasas, California. The group was flying to a girls basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy. Gianna’s team was coached by Bryant and was playing in the tournament.

Kobe Bryant adjusts his jersey
Gianna Bryant and her father, former NBA player Kobe Bryant, attend the WNBA All-Star Game 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nev., on July 27, 2019. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The NTSB is investigating the accident, including any role heavy fog played, and a final report isn’t expected for at least a year.

Earlier this month, NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said preliminary information suggests the Sikorsky S-76B descended rapidly before it crashed.

“The descent rate for the helicopter was over 2,000 feet a minute,” Homendy said. “This is a pretty steep descent at high speed.”

Radar data indicated the helicopter climbed 2,300 feet and began a left descending turn, she said.

The crash impact broke the helicopter into pieces, creating a debris field stretching about 500 to 600 feet, according to Homendy.

“Our investigators have already developed a substantial amount of evidence about the circumstances of this tragic crash,” said NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt in an accompanying statement Friday. “And we are confident that we will be able to determine its cause as well as any factors that contributed to it so we can make safety recommendations to prevent accidents like this from occurring again.”

Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site
Personnel collect debris while working with investigators at the helicopter crash site of NBA star Kobe Bryant in Calabasas, California on Jan. 28, 2020. (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)

A witness told the NTSB that the helicopter was flying forward and downward through the fog before it crashed right into the hillside. The witness said he saw the helicopter for 1 to 2 seconds before it hit the hill.

The helicopter’s instrument panel was destroyed in the crash and most of the devices were displaced, according to the NTSB’s investigative update. The flight controls were broken and suffered fire damage.

Investigators believe that since a tree branch at the crash site was cut, it appears the engines were working and rotors turning at the time of impact.

Friday’s report was merely informational and did not offer any findings about what caused the crash.

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Part of the wreckage of a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2020. (James Anderson/National Transportation Safety Board via AP)

In addition to Bryant, 41, and his daughter, Gianna Bryant, 13, the crash claimed the lives of Payton Chester, 13; Sarah Chester, 45; Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and the helicopter’s pilot, Ara Zobayan, 50.

The victims’ deaths have been ruled an accident by blunt trauma, according to the Los Angeles County coroner.

Kobe and 8 other crash victims
Sarah Chester, Gianna Bryant, Payton Chester, Keri Altobelli, John Altobelli, Christina MAuser, Ara Zobayan, Alyssa Altobelli, Kobe Bryant. (Family Photo/Orange Coast Community College/Group 3 Aviation via AP/Getty Images)

The deaths shook Los Angeles and the sporting world, with memorials spanning the city and tributes at the Super Bowl and other games. A public memorial for Bryant and the other victims is scheduled for Feb. 24 at the Staples Center.

The arena is where Bryant starred for the Los Angeles Lakers for most of his two-decade and the date 2/24 corresponds with the No. 24 jersey he wore and the No. 2 worn by Gianna.

Mourners gather outside Staples Center before a Los Angeles Lakers home game to pay respects to Kobe Bryant
Mourners gather outside Staples Center before a Los Angeles Lakers home game to pay respects to Kobe Bryant after a helicopter crash killed the retired basketball star and his daughter Gianna, in Los Angeles, Calif., on Jan. 31, 2020. (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)

Ara Zobayan was the chief pilot for Island Express Helicopters and had more than 8,200 hours of flight time. He was additionally certified to fly solely using instruments—a more difficult rating to attain that allows pilots to fly at night and through clouds—and was a pilot to other celebrities including Kawhi Leonard and Kylie Jenner.

The aircraft did not have a device called the Terrain Awareness and Warning System that signals when an aircraft is in danger of hitting ground. The NTSB has recommended the system be mandatory for helicopters but the Federal Aviation Administration only requires it for air ambulances. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, both California Democrats, have called for the FAA to mandate the devices in the wake of the tragedy.

It’s not clear if the warning system would have averted the crash. The helicopter was also not required to have a black box.

A public memorial for Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and daughter Alyssa will be held Feb. 10 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.

The Associated Press and The CNN Wire contributed to this report