The Slatest

What We Know About Kobe Bryant’s Helicopter

Kobe Bryant at a ceremony during FIBA World Cup 2019.
Kobe Bryant has used a Sikorsky S-76 since he was a player for the Lakers. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant died on Sunday morning when his private helicopter crashed in Calabasas, California. The chopper reportedly caught fire and collided with a hillside, killing all nine people on board, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna. The crash ignited a brush fire at the scene, which made it difficult for emergency personnel to respond.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash, which is currently unknown and may take more than a year to settle definitively. Investigators will examine the pilot’s history and records related to its maintenance, owner, and operator. Weather reports indicate that conditions were foggy; it’s unclear whether the fog contributed to the crash, but the Los Angeles International Airport had delayed flights and the Los Angeles Police Department grounded its helicopters over the weekend due to poor visibility.

TMZ reports that police sources and flight tracker data further suggest that heavy fog could have played a role in the crash:

L.A. weather was extremely foggy Sunday morning, and law enforcement sources tell us even LAPD air support was grounded because of it. Flight tracker data shows Kobe’s chopper appeared to first encounter weather issues as it was above the L.A. Zoo. It circled that area at least 6 times at a very low altitude—around 875 feet—perhaps waiting for the fog to clear. We know the pilot contacted the control tower at Burbank Airport around 9:30 AM PT, and the tower was aware the pilot had been circling for about 15 minutes. The pilot eventually headed north along the 118 freeway before turning to the west, and started following above the 101 freeway around Woodland Hills, CA. At around 9:40 AM they encounter more weather—as in seriously heavy fog—and the chopper turned south. This was critical, because they turned toward a mountainous area. The pilot suddenly and rapidly climbed from about 1200 feet up to 2000 feet. However, moments later—around 9:45 AM—they flew into a mountain at 1700 feet. Flight tracker data shows they were flying at about 161 knots.

A conversation between Bryant’s pilot and air traffic control captured by LiveATC.net indicates that the helicopter had also been granted Special Visual Flight Rules (SVFR) clearance, which allows an aircraft to operate in worse than usual weather conditions. A source told ESPN that the helicopter had been making the rapidly climbing left turn in order to rise above the clouds, and the LiveATC.net audio further suggests that the pilot was trying to get to a high enough elevation to be picked up by radar without interference from the hilly terrain.

The helicopter was reportedly a Sikorsky S-76B, a model that Bryant had been known to use while he was playing with the Lakers, as he found it taxing on his body to sit in a car for too long. The aircraft tracking service Flightradar24 indicates that the helicopter had been used multiple times in the past week.

Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, also makes vehicles for the military. The company markets the Sikorsky S-76 to corporate executives for personal transportation, though it’s also used for search and rescue missions. It typically costs around $13 million, can carry up to 12 passengers, features twin turboshaft engines, and has a range of 472 miles. More than 178 corporate and VIP customers currently operate Sikorsky S-76 helicopters, as do various heads of state. A Sikorsky S-76 crashed in Canada in 2013, as did another in Turkey in 2017. The company’s website, though, notes that the helicopter has “more than 7.4 million hours of safe, successful flight.” According to Business Insider, the Sikorsky S-76 has a “sterling safety record.”

Kobe’s particular helicopter had been manufactured in 1991, and the NTSB database does not indicate any other accidents associated with the same tail number. According to the FAA registration database, the vehicle was owned by a company named Island Express Holding Corp. and had previously belonged to the state of Illinois. The official Sikorsky Twitter account announced that it has been in contact with the NTSB:

Helicopters tend to crash more frequently than other types of aircraft because they typically fly lower to the ground, which increases the risk that they might run into obstacles like buildings or power lines, especially when the weather makes it hard for a pilot to see. Compared with planes, they have more moving parts that can malfunction and tend to take off and land more often, which are statistically the most dangerous periods of any flight. They’re also generally harder to operate, particularly for beginners: The rate of accidents during training flights for helicopters is twice as high as that for planes. According to the FAA, though, the number of civilian helicopters has grown by 30 percent since 2006, while the number of accidents has actually decreased in “key global regions” by 30 to 50 percent.

This post is about a breaking news story and is being updated as more facts become known.