Kobe Bryant Crash: Helicopter Nearly Cleared Blinding Clouds, According to NTSB

The "investigative update" the National Transportation Safety Board released on the Jan. 26 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant Friday revealed that the aircraft was only about 100 feet away from clearing cloud level. The initial report found there was no sign of engine failure and pilot Ara Zabayan was disoriented before the crash. Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, Zobayan and six others were killed in the crash.

Zobayan told air traffic controllers he was bringing the helicopter up 4,000 feet above sea level, and reached 2,300 feet. That was just 100 feet from the top of the clouds, according to camera footage the NTSB saw. Instead of continuing to climb, the helicopter began to drop at a high speed and Zobayan took a left turn into the terrain. The helicopter hit the hillside at over 180 mph and it was descending 4,000 feet per minute.

"If you exit the bottom of the clouds at 4,000 feet per minute at that high speed, you've certainly lost control of the aircraft," air safety consultant Kipp Lau told the Associated Press. He said the helicopter could have escaped the clouds in another 12 seconds if Zobayan was ascending at 500 feet per minute.

"Once you break out of the clouds, it's clear. Everything lines up with the body," Lau explained. "Now you have a real horizon."

Veteran Los Angeles pilot Mike Sagely told the AP the report suggests Zobayan tried to get above the clouds by flying upwards, then forward.

"When he went into the clouds, he had a full-on emergency," Sagley said, adding that if a pilot tries to turn instead of staying with the maneuver "probably in the neighborhood of 80 to 90 percent of the time, it's catastrophic."

Zobayan was a pilot for Island Express Helicopters with over 8,200 hours of flight time. He was certified to fly using instruments, which allows pilots to fly at night and through clouds when they cannot see the ground. In his final transmission, he told air traffic controllers he was going to climb above the clouds and sounded calm in his conversations with them.

The NTSB's investigation is still ongoing and a full report, including the cause of the crash, will be released next year.

Bryant, Gianna and the other victims were heading to the Mamba Sports Academy for a basketball tournament. The other victims were John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester and Payton Chester.

The Altobelli family memorial is scheduled for Monday at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. A public memorial for Bryant is scheduled for Feb. 24 at the Staples Center, although there were concerns the arena would be too small. It only seats up to 20,000 people.

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Bryant played 20 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers, winning five NBA championships. He retired in 2016, and is fourth on the NBA's all-time scoring list.

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