Going Direct: The One Piece Of Evidence That Sticks Out From Kobe Bryant Crash Report

Zoomed in depiction of ADS-B returns of last 1 minute of flight.
Zoomed in depiction of ADS-B returns of last 1 minute of flight for the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight others. NTSB
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As we’ve written about here, the NTSB’s preliminary report on the Kobe Bryant crash is out. Bryant, a former basketball superstar and global celebrity was killed in the crash along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna.

The NTSB report features an impressive docket with hundreds of pages of written reports, as many photographs and a mountain of other data. But with all the 3-D maps and in-depth discussion of the details of the wreckage, there is one piece of evidence that I scratched my head over upon first hearing it. No one, to my knowledge, has discussed this odd transmission in any depth, or its timing and its probable meaning. And the NTSB preliminary report gives it a bare mention. 

Here is the text from the NTSB report of the description of the pilot’s interactions with air traffic controllers. (The emphasis is ours.)

The pilot reported to SCT that the flight was going to Camarillo at 1,500 feet. The SCT controller advised that he would not be able to maintain radar contact at that altitude and terminated services. The SCT controller was subsequently relieved by a different controller. At 0945, the pilot of N72EX again contacted SCT and advised he was climbing above cloud layers and requested advisory services. The second controller was not aware of the aircraft, as services had previously been terminated, so asked the pilot to identify the flight. The SCT controller then asked the pilot his intentions, to which he replied he was climbing to 4,000 feet. There were no further transmissions.

The remarkable thing about the pilot’s request for air traffic controllers’ advisories, a request that Zobayan made again shortly before the helicopter crashed, is that there is only one good explanation for it. It was a cry for help. 

To understand the nature of the request, you need to know what the request meant. 

When a pilot requests that controllers provide a service that aviators often refer to as “flight following” (and which controllers typically call “radar advisories”), controllers can track and advise a pilot to be on the lookout for other, possibly conflicting aircraft in the area, or of airspace that requires special permission to enter. Controllers provide flight following services only when they have the time to do so and when the aircraft is under radar coverage. They are called “advisories” because the controller is under no obligation to provide them or to intervene if trouble is ahead. They are, in essence, a courtesy.

Going Direct: NTSB Preliminary Report On Kobe Bryant Crash 

So when Zobayan requested flight following from the SoCal controller about a minute before the helicopter he was flying crashed, there was no logical reason for the request. Too low and losing sight of the ground (or most likely, having already completely lost sight of the ground), flight following would have done nothing for Zobayan. He needed to know where he was in reference to the freeway he was following, and he needed to know where the high terrain was around him. Flight following is not intended to either provide directions or warn of high terrain. There are, sadly, inexpensive commercial apps for phones and tablets that do both of those things quite well with no interaction with controllers needed. 

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So when the pilot requested flight following, it was, to use a sports term for a long shot, last-second attempt to avoid defeat, “a Hail Mary.” 

Moments later Zobayan would crash his sophisticated, well-equipped helicopter into the slope of a hill in rising terrain, after turning to the south, presumably after having lost sight of the ground, and losing control of the aircraft.  Moments earlier when he reached out to the controller for help, any kind of help, it was already too late. The only person in the world who could have helped him avoid catastrophe was Ara Zobayan himself, and he was apparently out of ideas.  

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