The helicopter crash that caused the deaths of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others is the subject of investigations by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. Eight passengers and a pilot were traveling in a Sikorsky S-76 when it crashed at around 9:45 a.m. local time on Sunday. The crash occurred in a field in the Los Angeles County city of Calabasas about 45 minutes after the helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana. Other victims include Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli and both his daughter Alyssa and wife, Keri.
ESPN has reported that Bryant was traveling with his daughter to attend one of her basketball games. Bryant had flown on helicopters for years in part to avoid Los Angeles traffic and to travel in comfort. He was traveling on a S-76, a top-of-the-line helicopter for private travel and air ambulance services.
The identity of the pilot of the crashed chopper is unknown at this time, though the pilot was reportedly male. Ara Zobavan, an experienced helicopter pilot and certified flight instructor, was on the chopper, though authorities have not confirmed that he was piloting it. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva stated in a press conference that nine people were listed on the flight’s manifest and nine bodies were found at the scene. No one on the ground was injured.
ESPN reports that audio obtained by LiveATC.net reveals an air traffic controller warning the pilot he was flying “too low” in hilly terrain for purposes of being detectable by radar. ESPN also reports that the helicopter “dove to the ground” as it was engaged in a “climbing left turn” approximately 2,400 feet high.
Both the FAA and NTSB have relevant roles to play in investigating the crash. The FAA oversees and regulates civil aviation and air navigation in the United States. The NTSB is an independent federal agency that studies and offers conclusions about transportation crashes. Those crashes include road, rail and air incidents. The NTSB has already announced that it is dispatching a “go team,” which consists of investigators and other experts, to extensively review the crash. Among other things, the go team will carefully survey the accident scene, retrieve debris for testing, conduct interviews with persons who possess relevant information and establish communications protocols for news to be relayed to the public. The FAA and NTSB want to discover not only what happened but what can be learned to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
Investigators will try to ascertain whether human error, mechanical defects, weather and other factors contributed to the crash. Findings by investigators could become relevant evidence in potential litigation relating to the crash. To that point, while feelings of shock, grief and remembrance are rightfully the focus at this time, a desire to understand why the crash occurred—and whether anyone broke the law—will increasingly attract attention in the days and weeks ahead. A crash doesn’t happen without a reason or reasons.
Reports indicate that flames engulfed the helicopter as it landed in a field. Flight recorders, however, are designed to withstand crashes and flames. Flight recorders are not required on helicopters, but assuming the crashed helicopter contained one and assuming it is found, the recorder will likely contain crucial insight into what happened. Recorded information could include any registered technical malfunctions, conversations in the cockpit and radio exchanges with ground flight operators.
Other relevant data could be ascertained through passenger phones. It’s unknown whether any of the passengers were talking on the phone during the flight or whether they were exchanging texts, emails and direct social media messages. Those correspondences could contain pertinent insights about the circumstances of the crash.
Eyewitnesses will also play important roles. Los Angeles County Fire Captain Tony Imbrenda informed media that nearby eyewitnesses thought the helicopter seemed to be flying in distress and erratically. A man named Jerry Kocharian told the Los Angeles Times that he was standing outside a nearby church when he saw the helicopter. He observed it flying “real low” and was “failing and spluttering.” He added it disappeared into the fog and then he heard a boom. “There was a big fireball,” he told The Times.
A finding of human error could surface in a number of ways. For instance, the decision to fly a helicopter during unsafe weather conditions or with known mechanical issues can constitute a human error. The reported weather Sunday morning in Calabasas was foggy and with low visibility. The fog was so severe that the Los Angeles Police Department grounded its helicopter flights that morning. Other types of possible errors include navigation decisions by the pilot while in the air and during the landing. Air traffic controllers can also be probed for their role and the quality of directions they provided to a flight in distress. ESPN reports that the pilot was in continued communication with air traffic controllers and gaining guidance from then to help fly through dense fog. The manner in which the helicopter was maintained and stored prior to takeoff could further raise questions about human judgment. Likewise, the pilot’s background, training and health will be reviewed.
Sikorsky Aircraft is also a relevant party for investigators since it manufactured the helicopter. The company tweeted a statement on Sunday expressing condolences to victims and pledging to fully cooperate with the NTSB:
Sikorsky Aircarft will likely be asked to share any information about known issues with the S-76. This make of helicopter has flown since the late 1970s and has garnered praise for safety. In 2011, Flying Magazine reported the S-76 has a “stellar” safety record. Sikorsky Aircraft is owned by Lockheed Martin, a publicly traded global aerospace company that is no doubt sensitive to the high-profile nature of this crash.
CNN reports that the crashed helicopter was built in 1991. It is registered to Island Express Holding Corporation, a company located in Fillmore, California. Media reports indicate that Bryant owns, and has flown, a S-76, but FAA records indicate Island Express owns the crashed S-76. The safety record, maintenance and storage of the crashed S-76 will be reviewed by investigators.
The above analysis highlights how a number of people and businesses could be found to have erred in ways that contributed to the crash. There may not be a simple explanation, particularly if weather contributed to the crash. The crash might also genuinely be an accident that doesn’t warrant a finding of fault. However, if a person or business could be viewed as negligent, the crash could spawn wrongful death lawsuits and other types of litigation.
It may take a while for the NTSB to reveal its findings. NTSB investigations can take many months and sometimes exceed a year.
Sports Illustrated will monitor the situation and provide updates.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and the Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.