But for whatever reason, he failed to stay focused on his artificial horizon. The helicopter began to lean to the left—first gently, then steeply. Unable to see the ground, Zobayan must have misinterpreted the cues his inner ear was giving. It felt like the aircraft was banking to the right when it was actually turning to the left. The more he tried to correct it by shoving the stick to the left, the worse he made it. Soon he was in a steep bank.
The controller asked where he intended to go: “2EX, where, say intentions?”
By now Zobayan had climbed 1,000 feet. The clouds surrounding him grew wispier. Brightness suffused them. He was nearly at the top of the clouds, nearly in the clear.
“Uh, we climbing to 4,000.”
Even as he spoke, the steepening bank was drawing the helicopter back into the clouds. The overcast grew darker once more. Though he didn’t seem to realize it, Zobayan was not climbing but descending, and with increasing speed.
Asked the controller: “And then what are you going to do, when you get to altitude?”
Two mountain bikers were taking a break on the trail above the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District facility when one heard the thwomping approach of a large helicopter. After 20 seconds “a blue and white helicopter emerged from the clouds passing from left to right,” rolling “to the left such that he caught a glimpse of its belly.” It hit the hillside at 185 mph. The tail and rotors broke off on impact and scattered while the fuselage tumbled another hundred feet and burst into flames.
The bikers hurried down the hill toward the crash. A circle of orange flames licked over the scattered debris.
Patti Taylor, the operations manager at OC Helicopters, sent out a group text: “Land?”
The limo driver waiting in Camarillo replied: “Not yet.”
Taylor called her primary contact at Island Express, vice president Bagge, and asked where Zobayan was on the flight-tracking software. Checking the screen, Bagge saw that the helicopter had stopped tracking at 9:45 a.m. She told Taylor that she’d call her back and phoned Angel Perez, the ground operations manager. She told him to call Zobayan on the radio. Getting no response, Perez telephoned Camarillo Airport. No one answered.
At 10:02 Ric Webb sent out a text to a group that included Zobayan and the limo driver waiting in Camarillo: “Ara, you okay.”
Bagge directed Perez to pull out the Emergency Response Manual and start running the checklist. One of the company’s other helicopters took off and headed for Zobayan’s last known position.
Meanwhile, in Calabasas, a flood of 911 calls had sent fire engines rolling to the edge of the water treatment facility below the crash site. As soon as firefighters climbed up the hillside to the wreckage, though, they saw that there were no lives left to save.
Within 10 minutes they realized who had died.
Amid social media speculation and false reports, TMZ broke the news: “KOBE BRYANT, DAUGHTER GIGI DIE IN HELICOPTER CRASH …”
The following month, Vanessa Bryant filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Zobayan’s estate, Island Express, and its parent company, Island Express Holding Corporation. Wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and Payton Chester, and Christina Mauser have also been filed against Island Express. For its part, the helicopter company filed a lawsuit against two air traffic controllers who communicated with Zobayan that day, asserting that the crash was caused by their “erroneous acts and/or omissions.”
For Deetz, who in addition to being a pilot served as Island Express’s safety manager until 2017, the tragedy of the crash is compounded by how easily it could have been avoided. “If the weather’s bad, you don’t go. And half the time, the client’s like, ‘OK, thanks.’ ”
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