Vanity Fair: Kobe Bryant’s Tragic Flight

8:45 A.M.

On a Gloomy Sunday Morning last winter, Ara Zobayan stood in the Atlantic Aviation terminal at John Wayne International Airport in Orange County, California, and contemplated his flight-planning app. The helicopter pilot’s software showed a blanket of clouds covering the city. Beneath the thousand-foot-thick layer lay patchy haze. The poor visibility meant that large swaths of the region were unflyable.

This was a problem. The charter company OC Helicopters had hired Zobayan’s employer, Island Express Helicopters, to fly Kobe Bryant and seven companions to Camarillo, an airport on the coast 80 miles to the northwest.

Completing the mission was important to Zobayan. Island Express was a small operation, with six helicopters and as many pilots, and it ran on thin margins, according to former Island Express pilot Kurt Deetz. Its business mostly consisted of shuttling passengers back and forth between Long Beach and Catalina Island, a tourist destination 20 miles off the coast. Custom charter flights for high-net-worth individuals were less frequent but far more lucrative.

Of all the company’s VIPs, Bryant was the I-est. According to Deetz, not only did Bryant fly Island Express regularly—for any crosstown trip that a normal person would just drive—but his patronage lent the company a luster. “Kobe was their pride and joy,” says Deetz. “It was like, ‘Look at us, we’ve made it.’ ” Keeping Bryant happy was job one. And as with any client, that meant getting him where he wanted to go.

The twin-engine Sikorsky S-76B that Zobayan would fly that day is regarded as one of the safest in the world. The aircraft was equipped for instrument flying, but according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s accident report, Island Express was only licensed to fly under visual flight rules, or VFR, meaning that the pilot had to be able to see the ground at all times. The NTSB investigation, along with interviews, are the basis for this account of the day’s events.

Ric Webb, the owner of OC Helicopters, arrived at the terminal to help with the Bryant party’s boarding. According to Patti Taylor, the operations manager at OC Helicopters, the company had a pre-existing relationship with Bryant and its own fleet of helicopters, but they were all single-engine. Per Los Angeles Lakers rules he could only fly on twin-engine helicopters, so they subcontracted his flights to Island Express. Zobayan showed Webb the weather map and told him that he had a plan. The direct route to Camarillo over the coast was awash in red, signifying that conditions were too crummy to fly. But if Zobayan stayed inland and east of downtown L.A., he could duck through a pass in the hills, cut across the San Fernando Valley, scoot over a low pass, and descend into Camarillo from the east. The conditions still wouldn’t be great, and the route would take longer, but he could handle it.

Every flight has a safety margin, a multilayer cushion that protects it from a crash. Among the components are backup parts for crucial aircraft systems, multiple safeguards to prevent the aircraft from hitting things, and procedures to ensure a pilot doesn’t miss any crucial steps. Island Express had a procedure in place to ensure that its pilots stayed within conservative safety parameters. Called the flight risk analysis tool, it was an electronic checklist of 69 items that would tally up a number of points indicating the risk factor. If the visibility was below VFR minimums, for instance, the system would add nine points, and so on. If the score totaled higher than 45, then the pilot could not fly without first consulting management.

Enough of those conditions applied on January 26 that the form instructed pilots to write down what they would do if they couldn’t complete the flight as planned, and to discuss the situation with the director of operations or the chief pilot. The Los Angeles Police Department had grounded its helicopters.

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Vanity Fair.

5 thoughts on “Vanity Fair: Kobe Bryant’s Tragic Flight”

  1. A well-written revealing article about flying in marginal weather, and especially about flying the busiest sector of the foggy California coastline. Most of all, the gem for pilots reading is the resulting “graveyard spiral” due to vestibular system limitations, particularly, the effect of the delay in the semi-circular canal signals to the brain, when the eyes have no external reference.

  2. Jeff – apologies for being off-topic – have you had a chance to assess the new book “A Disappearing Act” on MH370?

  3. As DG would know, the book is being released on Kindle in some countries on Feb 4. It would be interesting to hear Jeff’s comments.

  4. @DG, Sorry for the slow reply. I haven’t read Florence’s book but I’m very familiar with her work, she’s been involved in the MH370 story for a long time. She’s quite a capable reporter and developed some good contacts within the French aeronautical establishment (being French herself) but unfortunately does not have a scientific background and managed to get herself quite turned around when it comes to figuring out what happened to the plane. In short, she somehow came to the conclusion that the the Inmarsat data is entirely spurious and that the plane was shot down by the US military over the South China Sea. There is not a scrap of evidence for this, and a lot of evidence against it, of course.

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