The helicopter that crashed near Calabasas, California, killing NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people on January 26, 2020, was a Sikorsky S-76B with tail number N72EX owned by Island Express Holding Corp, according to FAA records. The cause of the crash remains under investigation by the FAA and NTSB. The pilot has been identified as 50-year-old Ara Zobayan.
The helicopter was previously owned by the state of Illinois and was built in 1991. It was the 374th S-76B built by Sikorsky, according to online records. It was not owned by Kobe Bryant. Island Express Holding, a charter company which goes by IEX Holding, is owned by Phillip DiFiore, of Long Beach, and has been in operation since 2011. DiFiore also owns Island Express Helicopters, which he has operated since 1986. DiFiore and his companies could not be reached for comment. Island Express appears to have taken down its website and social media profiles after the crash.
Kobe Bryant was known to travel in helicopters from his home in Orange County to the Staples Center in Los Angeles for games when he was still playing, and he has continued to use the helicopter after retiring from basketball, for family trips, outings to baseball games and other events, including his jersey retirement in 2017. Kurt Deetz, a former Island Express pilot who flew Bryant at times between 2014 to 2016, told The Los Angeles Times the Sikorsky helicopter was “like a Cadillac, a limousine, it’s limo-esque,” saying it’s comfortable and safe. Deetz told the newspaper the specific S-76B that crashed was in “fantastic” condition and said Island Express followed a “very good maintenance program.”
Bryant was traveling with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, to a basketball game at the Mamba Sports Academy, which he owned, in Thousand Oaks, California. The other victims include his daughter’s teammate, Alyssa Altobelli, and her parents, John and Keri Altobelli, along with Christina Mauser, a basketball coach. The two other victims have not been named yet.
Flight records show that the helicopter left Santa Ana John Wayne International Airport at 9:08 a.m. local time and crashed about 9:47 a.m. in hilly terrain near Calabasas. Deetz, the former Island Express pilot, told The Los Angeles Times weather conditions were poor in the area where the helicopter crashed. He said it was more likely the crash was caused by bad weather than engine or mechanical issues.
Here’s what you need to know about the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter that crashed in California:
1. The Helicopter, Purchased From the State of Illinois for More Than $500,000, Has Been Registered to Island Express Holding Corp Since 2015
The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter was owned by the state of Illinois from 2007 to 2015 and used the FAA number N761LL. It was listed in online records as having been used by Illinois for “VIP Governor.” The helicopter was sold at a state auction in 2015, according to the Illinois government auction website.
The helicopter was sold in August 2015 for $515,161 to Jim Bagge, who owns JB Helicopter Accessory Service in Sun Valley, California. It was registered by Island Express Holding Corp with the FAA on September 3, 2015. It is not clear if the helicopter was bought for the company by Bagge or was sold by him to them after the auction.
According to the FAA registration, the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter has two twin turbo-shaft engines made by Pratt & Whitney, and four-bladed main and tail rotors. It was built on May 30, 1991.
Photos provided by the state of Illinois show the interior of the plane:
And additional photos show the cockpit area:
According to IllinoisPolicy.org, former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner sold the Sikorsky helicopter, along with three other helicopters, in 2015, to help ease the state’s budget crunch. The helicopters were sold for a total of $2.5 million.
2. The Helicopter Was Adorned With a Black Coating & the Nike & Black Mamba Logos When Kobe Bryant Used It to Fly to Games at the Staples Center
The helicopter was once covered in black coating and adorned with a Nike logo and “Black Mamba” logo, Kobe’s personal brand, when it was used by Bryant to get to and from Los Angeles Lakers games. Photos show Bryant outside and inside of the helicopter in 2016 prior to one of his final games in the NBA.
According to The Washington Post, Bryant called the helicopter the “Mamba Chopper.” The Post wrote in 2018, “Years ago, he determined it wasn’t just more convenient to fly from his home 50 miles south of Staples Center for practices and games with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was irresponsible not to, given what hours in gridlock can do to the mind and body of a 6-foot-6 guard. More than trimming his commute to 15 minutes, the helicopter wound up becoming part of Bryant’s legend.”
In 2010, GQ’s J.R. Moehringer wrote:
He takes a private helicopter from Orange County, where he lives with his wife and two children, to every home game. It’s a nice dash of glitz, a touch of showbiz that goes well with the Hollywood sign in the hazy distance. But sexy as it might seem, Bryant says the helicopter is just another tool for maintaining his body. It’s no different than his weights or his whirlpool tubs or his custom-made Nikes. Given his broken finger, his fragile knees, his sore back and achy feet, not to mention his chronic agita, Bryant can’t sit in a car for two hours. The helicopter, therefore, ensures that he gets to Staples Center feeling fresh, that his body is warm and loose and fluid as mercury when he steps onto the court.
According to TMZ, Bryant used the helicopter for a Valentine’s Day getaway with his wife, Vanessa Bryant, to get teammate Steve Blake to a last-minute doctor’s appointment and to take his teammates to victory parades and celebratory outings in Las Vegas.
Kurt Deetz, who piloted the Sikorsky helicopter for Bryant from 2014 to 2016, told The Los Angeles Times after the crash, “It was always, ‘Hey,’ thumbs up, or sometimes nothing at all. He kept to himself. He would get in, get out, and that was it. There was no hugging, no backslapping — he was very professional.”
3. The 14-Seat Sikorsky S-76 Is ‘Smooth, Reliable, Quiet’ & a ‘Boardroom in the Sky,’ Lockheed Martin Says
The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter can hold up to 14 people, including two pilots. Sikorsky is a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, which says on its website that the S-76 is “smooth, reliable, quiet,” and is a “boardroom in the sky.”
Lockheed Martin says that more than 875 S-76 helicopters have been made. On its website, Lockheed Martin says, “Sikorsky is proud of the S-76 fleet’s legacy. With more than 7.4 million hours of safe, successful flight, we are committed to supporting the platform and to continuous product improvements.”
The company adds, “Introduced in 1977, the S-76 series has had a long legacy of supporting our customers with reliability and comfort. Originally built for the rigorous demands of the offshore oil & gas transportation, its capabilities fit naturally into other market segments, such as Executive transport, SAR, Airline and Helicopter Emergency Medical/Air Ambulance Services.”
4. The Helicopter Has Been Flown in the Past by Actor Turned Pilot Lorenzo Lamas, Who Said on Twitter After the Crash That He Is OK
The helicopter has been flown in the past by Lorenzo Lamas, an actor who now works as a professional pilot. Lamas tweeted after the crash that he is OK and offered condolences to those who were killed in the tragic accident.
Lamas had posted photos of the helicopter on social media in the past. The helicopter also appears in promotional materials for Island Express Holding Corp and it has been used by other celebrities, including Ashante, who used the helicopter for a photoshoot in 2018.
5. Sikorsky Issued a Statement Offering Condolences & Said ‘Safety Is Our Top Priority’
In a statement after the Calabasas crash, Sikorsky said, “We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by today’s Sikorsky S-76B accident in Calabasas, California. We have been in contact with the NTSB and stand ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer.”
Sikorsky added, “Safety is our top priority; if there are any actionable findings from the investigation, we will inform our S-76 customers.”
The NTSB said on Twitter, “NTSB launching Go Team to investigate the Jan. 26, 2020 crash of a Sikorsky
S-76B helicopter in Calabasas, CA. The team is expected to arrive in California this evening.”