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

Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

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.


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