It has been a year since the devastating helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Jianna and seven others.
On the anniversary of the NBA icon’s death, the cause of the tragedy is still a mystery – but it may not be for long.
Next month the National Transportation Safety Board will hold a virtual hearing to determine the probable cause of the accident.
Anthony Brickhouse, a former NTSB investigator, said Monday “the ‘probable cause’ is not to blame – it is the most likely scenario of the accident.”
The NTSB has already ruled out an engine and mechanical failure on the doped chopper and, in May, released more than 1,800 pages of evidence collected during its investigation.
“What the NTSB does, is they take all the data and they analyze it,” Brickhouse said.
“They see the human element, they look into the machine – hence the actual helicopter – and they see the environment in which the helicopter was not operated.”
“I haven’t seen anything to suggest something is wrong with the helicopter,” Brickhouse continued. “So what you do is your focus is on the human element and the environment element.”
“You add that puzzle back together. You crunch that information.”
On the day of the hearing, “That’s what we’re going to get on February 9”.
In the meantime, here’s what we know about the accident so far:
On Sunday, January 26, 2020, at approximately 9:06 pm, Bryant, 41, his daughter and six other passengers flew in a twin-engine Sikorsky S-76B from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California.
The famous Los Angeles Lakers were going to a youth basketball tournament at their Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, about 85 miles away.
Others on the board included assistant basketball coach Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester and her daughter, Peyton, and baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Carey, and their daughter Alyssa.
About 15 minutes after takeoff on a cloudy day, pilot Ara Zobayan – who was hired by Island Express helicopters and had previously flown Bryant – requested permission from Burbank Airport air traffic controllers to enter their airspace.
Due to poor visibility, Zobayan had to request what was known as permission to fly through the “special VFR”, even under conditions.
After circling for about 11 minutes because of air traffic, the helicopter was allowed to enter Burbank airspace and then continue north towards Van Nuys Airport.
The pilot told air traffic controllers around 9:44 in the morning that he was “climbing” up to 4,000 feet to avoid a cloudy layer.
In reality, Chopper suddenly climbed a little before turning left and speeding down – crashing down a hill at about 9:45 p.m.
According to the NTSB, the pilot “may have misjudged both the pitch and the roll angle,” becoming spatially disoriented and fleeing his senses when he was not boarding the aircraft.
The initial report stated, “When a pilot missteps altitude and acceleration, it is known as ‘somatogravic confusion’ and can cause spatial disorientation.”
Brickhouse explained: “When you have clear skies and good visibility, you can see what you want to see.
“But unfortunately, when you’re in the clouds, sometimes physically, depending on your brain, your inner ear, you get confused.”
“We’ve seen it in accidents in the past,” he said, “where pilots get into those situations and have issues.”
The weather was another fact-checker on the day of the accident – with evidence compiled in a 394-page meteorological report.
The video and photos “depict fog and low clouds,” the report said, adding that Joban struggled with a “low cloudy roof”.
The lawsuits filed by the families of Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, and other victims have argued that Zobian should not have been swept under the terms.
Both the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department and the Police Department had grounded their fleet that day due to fog and low clouds.
The unconscious helicopter, meanwhile, had a strong safety record, and had also taken Bryant before – after his last Lakers game in 2016.
“Nothing in the history of this model attracts my attention as being negative,” Brickhouse said.
However, the chopper did not have a “black box” or flight recorder, and did not have TAWS, a geo-wake system that alerts pilots when they are flying too close to the ground.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, it is needed in commercial helicopters such as those used by Bryant, but not in commercial ones.
Brickhouse said that at the February 9 hearing, the NTSB would also make recommendations “to try to prevent a similar incident occurring in the future”.
“I’m looking forward to what the probable cause will be, what the contributing factors will be, and what those recommendations will be.”