Kobe Bryant among nine killed in helicopter crash near Los Angeles

Helicopter of Kobe Bryant in 2016. Photo: © Long Beach Airport

All nine occupants have been killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Califonia, northwest of Los Angeles on Sunday morning.

Former American basketball champion Kobe Bryant (41), his daughter Gianna (13), one pilot and six other passengers were on board the helicopter at the time it crashed.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States issued a first statement shortly after the news of the crash broke, saying that the circumstances of the accident are unknown. Both FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating the crash. 18 people under a so-called ‘Go Team’ by the NTSB, including air crash investigators and specialists, were sent to California and arrived on Sunday evening. This team held an organizational meeting on Monday.

Initial media and witness reports said that the helicopter was flying in foggy conditions before it crashed and burst into flames on a hill close to the city of Calabasas in Los Angeles County, California at about 9:45 am local time. It was on a flight from Santa Ana Orange County John Wayne Airport (IATA: SNA). The crash site was first attended by the Los Angeles Country Fire Department. It reportedly took until about 10:30 am until the fire was extinguished.

The number of occupants and fatalities was initially reported to be five. However, in a later statement by the Los Angeles County Sheriff, it was increased to nine. The official did not mention the identities of those killed at that time. Names were only published once relatives have been informed.

In Air Traffic Control (ATC) recordings from moments before the accident happened (later obtained via LiveATC), a controller can be heard responding to a request by the helicopter, which is flying under ‘Visual Flight Rules’ (VFR) conditions, saying that it is flying too low for radar flight. The pilot, named as Ara Zobayan – who is certified as a commercial helicopter pilot since 2007 (via FAA), did not respond to the radio call.

The aircraft involved was a 1991-built Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, registered as N72EX and owned by Van Nuys, Los Angeles based ‘Island Express Holding Corp.’, according to the FAA aircraft registry. Sikorsky is a subsidiary of defense conglomerate Lockheed Martin, and issued a statement via Twitter.

Kobe Bryant was a five-time champion in the US basketball league NBA and among the most successful athletes in the sport until his retirement in 2016.

Los Angeles International Airport lit its pylons in yellow and purple during the night following the fatal crash, in memory to Bryant, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers basketball club for 20 years.