‘Helicopter Went Down, Flames Seen’: Kobe Bryant’s Last Flight
LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant pulled his Range Rover into the familiar lot on the edge of Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, the quiet side where small charter planes and private helicopters whisk people into the sky above the congestion of Los Angeles.
Inside one waiting area, a couple of dozen passengers sat glumly. Some of their charter flights had been grounded indefinitely because of poor visibility. They fidgeted with phones. Some watched CBS’s “Sunday Morning.”
But Bryant glided into another lounge and walked with his small group of teenage basketball players, parents and a coach through the automatic glass doors. They wiggled into a warmed-up Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, white with two tones of blue stripes.
Minutes later, at 9:06 a.m., they took to the air, on their way to the second day of a weekend tournament. The pilot steered the helicopter toward their destination in Thousand Oaks. As thick clouds loomed behind the hills to the north, they were one of the few helicopters in the sky.
Across the city, the Los Angeles County sheriff, Alex Villanueva, was running errands when he received a text message from his assistant sheriff. It was an image of a call that had come in at 9:47 over the department’s dispatch system.
“Incident, Lost Hills Rd/Las Virgenes Rd,” it said. “Just south of 101 helicopter went down flames seen.”
In his sprawling county, where helicopters are used by many as taxis, aircraft troubles are not that rare. He told the assistant sheriff to keep him updated.
Ten minutes later, another text came, with a lot more detail. Two words stuck out.
“Confirmed Kobe,” it said.
The Mamba tournament
The weekend of Jan. 25, recounted here through interviews with witnesses, co-workers and family members, as well as a review of investigation documents and flight records, would begin for Bryant the way it ended: with a helicopter ride, this first one on Saturday morning, from John Wayne Airport.
Team Mamba, the girls’ basketball team Bryant coached in Orange County, was playing its first tournament game in Thousand Oaks, and his daughter Gianna would be among those playing. He made the flight from Orange County to a small airport at Camarillo, 80 miles away northwest of Los Angeles. A car took him the remaining few miles to the tournament at a gym co-owned by Bryant called Mamba Sports Academy.
Bryant, 41, had become known for his airborne commutes. In his last years as a star for the Los Angeles Lakers, he often took helicopters to practices and games, figuring it freed his time for other things, like family.
By the time the Mambas arrived at Mamba Sports Academy late that morning, the two-day Mamba Cup was well underway. The tournament featured boys and girls, ages 9 to 14. Teams came from throughout California and several states.
Team Mamba was the star attraction. Besides the world-famous coach and his daughter in jersey No. 2, the roster included Mackenly Randolph, the daughter of the former N.B.A. center Zach Randolph.
Bryant, so often the constant target of pining fans and their cellphone cameras, went to an upstairs lounge that boasts couches, TVs and a view of the five courts below.
He sent an order for his team to the coffee bar downstairs. About half wanted strawberry banana smoothies; the others, peanut butter protein shakes. Bryant had a shake, packed with peanut butter, banana, almond milk and vanilla protein powder.
The Mambas were formidable, not unbeatable. They lost their first game, 46 to 29, to a team from Texas.
Between games, Bryant headed into a restroom as a team of young boys from Fresno, Calif., gathered outside. “Ko-be, Ko-be, Ko-be,” they chanted, until he came out. Bryant emerged with a smile and posed for a photograph.
The Mambas won their next game, 35 to 29. The three girls who would ride on the helicopter the next day — Gianna Bryant, 13; Payton Chester, 13; and Alyssa Altobelli, 14 — combined for 17 points.
“Can I get a picture?” a 13-year-old boy asked Kobe Bryant as a black S.U.V. pulled up outside.
“I’ll get you tomorrow,” Bryant replied.
‘Kobe’s taking us in the chopper’
Back in Orange County, John Altobelli was hard at work, preparing for the season opener of the Orange Coast College baseball team. He had coached the team since 1992, winning more than 700 games and four state junior-college championships, including in 2019. A scrimmage and fund-raiser on Saturday kept him away from his daughter Alyssa’s basketball games that day. But he planned to go on Sunday, dreading the drive that took 90 minutes, but often much longer in the city’s notorious traffic.
Then his phone buzzed. It was Bryant. “Sweet,” Altobelli told an assistant coach. “Kobe’s taking us in the chopper.”
Altobelli’s younger brother, Tony, also worked at the college, as the sports information director. He was exercising on the track when the pinging of bats drew him to the baseball field. He wanted to say hello to his brother.
John Altobelli teased his little brother for working out — “and 20 beers probably afterward,” he said to Tony, whom the family called Toad. The brothers expected to see each other again in only a few days, for the baseball team’s opening day.
“I’ll see you Tuesday,” Tony said.
“O.K., Toad,” his older brother replied. “See you Tuesday.”
A trip to the mall
Around 5 p.m., Bryant was at Fashion Island, an upscale outdoor mall overlooking the Pacific in Newport Beach, 15 minutes from home. He strolled hand-in-hand with his 3-year-old daughter, Bianka, who wore a Minnie Mouse jacket. They paused to watch fish in the koi pond.
But basketball was on the agenda. That evening, Bryant spoke on the phone with Nancy Lieberman, the pioneering basketball player and coach, about working with Gianna and the Mambas.
Just as it was getting dark in California, the Lakers were beginning a game in Philadelphia against the 76ers. On his Nike sneakers, the Lakers star LeBron James had written a message for the occasion: “Mamba 4 Life.”
Everyone knew what was coming. Midway through the third quarter, James scored on a layup. The basket lifted him past Bryant’s 33,643 career points, into third place in N.B.A. history.
The crowd in Philadelphia, where Bryant was born and spent much of his childhood, gave James a standing ovation.
Not long afterward, from his iPhone, Bryant sent what would be his final tweet.
“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames,” he wrote. “Much respect my brother.”
A bit after 8 p.m. in California, the two basketball stars spoke on the phone. Bryant wanted to congratulate his friend. James reportedly put Bryant on speakerphone so other Lakers could hear him.
Prayers at dawn
A low-pressure system moved in from the ocean overnight, drawing cool, moist air over much of Los Angeles. A thick marine layer formed a little higher than 1,000 feet above sea level. In most places, there was no fog, just clouds.
Kobe Bryant may not have noticed this when he awoke before sunrise. Bryant lived in a mansion overlooking the ocean with his wife, Vanessa, and four daughters. It is five miles, along curved, manicured boulevards, to Our Lady Queen of Angels, the Catholic church that the Bryants attended.
The church is a beige, modern building, with a large patio and fountain in front. Inside, two thin speakers hang from the ceiling to project the priest’s words to the back part of the church, where Bryant sometimes sat, trying to blend in.
Sunday’s first Mass was at 7 a.m., but Bryant had come and gone by then. As other parishioners began to arrive, a priest bumped into Bryant on his way out. The men chatted briefly, shook hands, and the priest noted the drop of holy water on Bryant’s forehead. He had been praying, he thought.
Five households awoke that morning with at least one person preparing for a ride in the Mamba Chopper. By car, all were within a half-hour radius of the Bryant house in Newport Coast, a gated hillside community in Newport Beach.
John and Keri Altobelli, who were going with Alyssa, lived just a few blocks from the Bryants. Payton Chester and her mother, Sarah, lived to the south, in San Juan Capistrano.
Christina Mauser, a coach on the team and a mother of three, lived to the north, in Huntington Beach. That was not far from the pilot, Ara Zobayan, who lived in an apartment along the Pacific Coast Highway.
The games were scheduled at noon and 2, like the day before, and everyone knew to be at the Atlantic Aviation terminal by 9.
The helicopter, operated by a charter company called Island Express, began the day at Long Beach Airport, not far from Zobayan’s apartment. He flew it to John Wayne Airport, an eight-minute flight, and landed at 8:37 a.m.
After church that morning, Bryant spoke to James again before the Lakers’ team plane departed Philadelphia for its cross-country trip home to Los Angeles.
At 8:19 a.m., Bryant sent an Instagram message to Shareef O’Neal, the son of Bryant’s former teammate Shaquille O’Neal. “You good fam?” Bryant wrote.
Around 8:45, Bryant drove his Range Rover north on Bristol Street, which runs behind the airport. An Aston Martin pulled up next to him at a light, and the driver noticed Bryant laughing with someone, probably Gianna, in the front seat.
A misty morning at the airport
In the passenger lounge at Atlantic Aviation, with its leather furniture and a table with free coffee, members of Team Mamba kept warm while the helicopter waited on the tarmac outside.
Around the airport, the official visibility was four miles, but there was a mist in the air. At ACI Jet nearby, a man who had arrived before 8:30 for a chartered flight was told he would be grounded awhile, given the weather, though commercial jets operating on instruments were flying.
He ended up in a room with 20 or 30 others. Some would still be there, waiting for the clouds to lift, when the news broke.
Bryant’s pilot, Zobayan, would have had final authority on the decision to leave, possibly confident that, in a helicopter, he could land or turn back if the weather worsened. It is not known if he consulted Island Express’s management. Friends and colleagues who knew Zobayan said it was unlikely he could have been pressured into flying by a celebrity client.
Bryant and his guests climbed into the Mamba Chopper and sat on a pair of four-person benches, one facing forward, the other facing to the back. The helicopter, registered as N72EX, lifted off at 9:06.
Zobayan quickly leveled off at 700 to 800 feet, below the clouds. They cruised north at about 170 miles per hour toward downtown Los Angeles. The clouds kept Zobayan from angling west and cutting high over the Hollywood Hills, as he had done the day before. He stayed low, following I-5 past Dodger Stadium, to the wide gap east of Griffith Park, with its famous hilltop observatory.
At Glendale, air traffic control put him in a holding pattern while a NetJets charter from Tucson, Ariz., flying on instruments because of the poor visibility, approached the Hollywood Burbank Airport. The Mamba Chopper slowed to about 70 m.p.h. and circled five times in about 11 minutes, just below the clouds.
The nearby Van Nuys Airport also had an inbound plane, a private jet from Cabo San Lucas. Controllers routed the chopper around it in an arc to the north, out of the way, above the wide San Fernando Valley. At 9:39, the helicopter swooped back to the south at 1,400 feet to trace Highway 101 west toward Camarillo.
Soon, with the Santa Monica Mountains to the left, the terrain wrinkles, and the highway rises and falls and curves with the topography. On this day, the space between earth and clouds narrowed to almost nothing.
Zobayan requested flight following, in which controllers track an aircraft to provide advisories along the way. Because the company was not certified to fly with instruments, he wanted to stay below the clouds. But flying so low meant that radar could not track him.
“Two Echo X-ray,” an air traffic controller said, using the helicopter’s code, “you’re still too low level for flight following at this time.”
At 9:45, Zobayan radioed that he was climbing to avoid the cloud layer. It was the last communication he made.
The helicopter rose 1,000 feet in 36 seconds.
At about 2,300 feet, it made a broad partial U-turn to the left and then started a steep descent.
Outside a church, just about then, Scott Daehlin heard a helicopter buzzing overhead, moving to the east. He had lived in the area for 57 years. He knew the hills that he could not see.
“Oh, no,” he muttered. “It’s too low.”
There was a thud, then silence.
Daehlin punched 911 into his phone.
“I just heard a helicopter go over me,” he said, giving his location. “It went over my head, thick in clouds, and I heard a pop and it immediately stopped. I can’t see it.”
A few hundred feet up the bare hill, at about cloud level, the wreckage burned along a popular single-track trail that mountain bikers call “Millennium.” Two groups of mountain bikers were on either side of the site when the helicopter fell from the clouds.
First came the sheriff’s deputies, stationed just about a mile away, at Lost Hills. Then various fire trucks, from Station 125, just across 101, and Station 68, the next exit east, and Station 67, on down Las Virgenes in Malibu Canyon.
Climbing out of their trucks, they ran up the steep hill, but quickly realized there was nothing they could do.
The longest day
Villanueva, the sheriff, was still out running errands when he got the second text from his assistant sheriff, Steve Gross, at 10:20 a.m.: “From Captain Vanderhork, 8 dead, confirmed Kobe, one of his daughters, Pilot, and 5 others. Confirmation from owner of helicopter.”
The sheriff’s office had tracked down the flight and obtained a passenger manifest from Island Express. Now it was trying to locate family members before the news media got wind of what had happened.
Villanueva knew it would be a long day. He rushed home to shower and shave. As he pulled on his uniform, he asked his wife for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk. Then he was out the door.
As he rode to the scene, Villanueva called his undersheriff, Tim Murakami, who was trying to reach someone from the Lakers.
But as he was still on his way to the scene, he learned that TMZ, the celebrity and entertainment news outlet, had published a report at 11:24 a.m. saying that Bryant had died in a crash. TMZ posted a link on Twitter minutes later.
The news ricocheted around the globe.
By the time the sheriff arrived at Lost Hills sheriff’s station near the scene, family members of three of the victims, including Bryant’s family, and the general manager of the Lakers had already arrived. They feared the worst.
‘They’re all gone’
Tony Altobelli was on a walk around Balboa Island, not far from his home, when his cellphone buzzed. It was his oldest brother, Jim, in Texas.
“Did you hear about Kobe?” his brother asked.
Neither of them had an inkling that it was anything more than celebrity news. Altobelli texted the Orange Coast College women’s basketball coach, Sammy Doucette, who had coached at Mamba Academy.
“Hey Sammy is it true about Kobe?” Altobelli texted at 11:54.
“Where is John? Was he on board?” she replied immediately. “Where’s Alyssa?”
“You better call John,” Doucette wrote. “His phone is off. I know he’s flown on the copter before.”
Altobelli texted his older brother at 11:55.
“Hey, are you there? Are you and the kids OK?”
There was no response.
Altobelli, panicked, messaged assistant baseball coaches. One of the coaches, Tim Matz, called him. He could barely get the words out.
“They’re all gone,” he said.
“Who’s all gone?” Altobelli asked.
“John, Keri and Alyssa. They’re all gone.”
At Mamba Academy, Sherri Rosenthal was with her 15-year-old son Blake when a text message popped up on the cellphones of several parents. Hers came at 11:29.
“OMG!!! Kobe died in a helicopter crash!!” it read.
Within minutes, people were scrolling through phones, whispering with shocked expressions.
Soon, crying and screaming could be heard around the gym. Everybody rushed to Court 4, where the Mambas play. One of the player’s mothers, Britteny Gregory, yelled out: “Everybody on their knees. Let’s pray.” People dropped to the floor in small groups — teams, families, friends. After the prayer, they kneeled in silence.
Afterward, families and players began to trickle out of the academy, heads drooped, many wiping away tears. There would be no more games that day.
John Branch reported from Los Angeles, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from Newport Beach, Calif., Sarah Mervosh from New York and Miriam Jordan from Thousand Oaks, Calif. Reporting was contributed by Marc Stein from Dallas and Dave Philipps, Scott Cacciola and Tim Arango from Los Angeles. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.