Kobe Bryant helicopter showed no signs of engine failure, NTSB says

LOS ANGELES — The helicopter that crashed last month in Calabasas, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, showed no signs of engine failure, the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday.

The news comes as federal investigators continue to investigate the cause of the crash.

Officials said the chopper, which was flying using only visual readings, slammed into a hillside amid extremely foggy conditions. A Los Angeles Times data analysis tracked the final moments of the flight, finding the helicopter flew dangerously close to another hillside just before crashing. The NTSB report said the chopper was destroyed by “impact forces and fire.”

The helicopter — a Sikorsky S-76 chopper built in 1991 — departed John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. on Jan. 26, according to publicly available flight records. The aircraft passed over Boyle Heights, near Dodger Stadium, and circled over Glendale during the flight.

The pilot, Ara Zobayan, requested special visual flight rules, or VFR, which allow pilots to fly in controlled airspace when ceilings are less than 1,000 feet or when visibility is less than three miles. As weather conditions deteriorated on the trip to Ventura County, the pilot requested “flight following,” a process in which controllers are in regular contact with an aircraft and can help navigate.

In recorded radio communications, the air traffic control tower is heard telling the pilot the chopper is too low for flight following. Radar data indicate Zobayan, who had been a licensed commercial helicopter pilot for 19 years, guided the copter to 2,300 feet and then began a left turn.

Last week, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said the helicopter, which lacked a terrain warning system, was at 2,300 feet when it lost communication with air traffic controllers. The helicopter was descending at more than 2,000 feet per minute at the time of impact.

The chopper hit the hillside at an elevation of 1,085 feet, about 20 to 30 feet below an outcropping. Even if the pilot had been able to fly above the hilltop, he would have faced new hazards, officials said.