Phones, electronic devices of those on Kobe Bryant helicopter could hold clues to crash

LOS ANGELES —With no black box recorder aboard the helicopter that crashed last month in Calabasas, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are turning to the travelers’ personal electronics for potential answers.

Investigators hope the passengers’ cellphones and the pilot’s iPad can help them better understand the chaotic last moments of the flight before the chopper slammed into a hillside in foggy conditions.

Experts have said the helicopter was flying low enough that the activities of the electronics were likely captured by cellphone towers.

Ara Zobayan, the pilot of the Sikorsky S-76B, made his last communication with air traffic control as he climbed to 2,300 feet heading toward Camarillo in heavy clouds on Jan. 26. Investigators are seeking to reconstruct what led him to suddenly bank left and descend rapidly just before the crash.

The NTSB is increasingly using personal electronics to help understand aviation disasters, and collecting the devices has become part of investigative protocol.

“We were looking for electronic devices, as we always do. We were able to recover an iPad and a cellphone,” NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said shortly after the crash. In the days that followed, investigators recovered additional personal devices and determined that the iPad belonged to Zobayan.

It could be a while, though, before they know whether there is recoverable data on the devices, NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said.

Investigators also will examine any potential communications from those devices during the flight from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, where the helicopter took off at 9:06 a.m. The group was heading to Bryant’s Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks for a basketball game.

When the chopper went down about 40 minutes later, everyone on board was killed: Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers legend; his 13-year-old daughter Gianna; Mamba coach Christina Mauser; player Payton Chester and her mother, Sarah Chester; player Alyssa Altobelli and her parents, John and Keri Altobelli; and Zobayan. All died of blunt force trauma, according to coroner’s reports.

The helicopter had neither a cockpit voice recorder nor a flight data recorder, better known as a black box, for the NTSB to analyze. Federal Aviation Administration regulations did not require the chopper to have such recorders.

But the pilot did have an app loaded on his iPad that allows a pilot to plan a flight and check on weather, terrain, position and potential hazards in real time from the cockpit. The ForeFlight app can provide in-flight alerts of changing conditions, and it monitors GPS, speed and other dynamics of the aircraft.

It’s unclear whether Zobayan was using the iPad because of the level of destruction during the crash, the NTSB said.

Gary Lackey, a former FAA inspector who for years has inspected choppers at Island Express, the operator of the helicopter that went down, said it’s not uncommon to see iPads with ForeFlight mounted for use by pilots. Veteran aviators say the devices can provide insight into a flight but also can prove to be a distraction.

Information from electronic devices gathered by NTSB investigators has previously helped investigators better understand why aircraft crashed. Cellphone records were crucial in determining the cause of a fatal crash of a Bell helicopter in New Mexico in September 2017, the agency said.

The helicopter was flying over open ranch land when it went down. The NTSB determined there was no mechanical failure or malfunction, but the pilot’s cellphone, which was recovered and reviewed, showed he had called a car rental agency during the flight.

When interviewed, the car rental clerk said she could tell the pilot was in a helicopter and that he seemed “busy or distracted.” They were talking about a future rental when the phone disconnected mid-sentence, she said.

“Based on available information, the pilot was likely using his cellphone during the low-altitude flight and became distracted, which resulted in the controlled flight into terrain,” the NTSB determined last year.

Similarly, the likely cause of the fatal crash of a single-engine Cessna airplane near Watkins, Colo., in May 2014 was revealed by a GoPro camera recovered from the wreckage. While the crash itself was not captured, the video revealed the pilot and various passengers had been taking selfies with their phones during a night flight, sometimes using a flash.

The NTSB concluded that the pilot probably became disoriented and “it is likely that the cellphone use during the accident flight distracted the pilot and contributed to the development of spatial disorientation and subsequent lack of control.”

In addition to personal electronics, investigators also are likely trying to extract data from the helicopter’s flight management system.

Doug Solbrekken, a veteran pilot of Sikorsky helicopters with two decades flying as well as training pilots, said he suspects the system won’t yield much more than what officials already know from local radar.

“There is still a slim chance that a passenger’s mobile phone or iPad could have been recording at the time of the crash,” he said. “Some pilots also use GoPro-type cameras suction-cupped to the windows, either pointing outside or back into the cockpit or cabin during flight.”

The FAA in 2014 banned airline pilots from using personal electronic devices, citing them as a distraction.

But general aviation pilots are allowed to use devices such as tablets with programs like ForeFlight. With pilots who are approved to fly passengers and cargo, the FAA can authorize operators to use electronic devices that can assist pilots.

The U.S. Department of Transportation in 2014 examined the safety of electronic flight devices and personal electronics used in the cockpit. Pilots complained of trouble scrolling and zooming with sometimes incorrect data and said the devices can be a distraction and sometimes lead to misinterpreted or erroneous aircraft performance parameters.

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