When Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed in a fiery helicopter crash Sunday, they were passengers in a luxury vehicle dating back to the George H.W. Bush administration.
The chopper, a twin-engine Sikorsky S-76, was a roughly $13 million model marketed as an “executive helicopter” for personal travel, catering to “corporate executives and heads of state.” A brochure for a more recent model of the aircraft boasts “safe, reliable flight in all weather situations,” and describes its demographic as “the few who have reached the pinnacle of success.”
But according to the Federal Aviation Administration aircraft registry, the particular vehicle in question spent most of its operating life far from the city in which Bryant became a basketball legend. Built in 1991, the chopper was owned by the state of Illinois from 2007 to 2015, when it was sold for $515,161 to a user named Jim Bagge, as the Chicago Daily Herald reported. Jim Bagge is the name of an executive at Island Express Holding Corp., the helicopter operator to which Bryant’s chopper was licensed, according to business records filed with the California Secretary of State in 2012. At the time of the sale, the helicopter’s airframe had clocked 3,951 hours, according to the helicopter database Helis.
At a press conference Sunday, representatives for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that they had sent 18 personnel to the crash site outside Calabasas, California, to investigate the accident. Jennifer Homendy, an NTSB representative, said the team would look into the maintenance records, the pilot’s background, and the helicopter’s owner and operator.
Representatives of Island Express Holding Corp—including their presidents, Bagge and Philip DiFiore, and their general counsel Teri Neville—did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Island Express also appeared to have taken down its website and social media profiles some time after the crash.
The helicopter manufacturer, Sikorsky, a subsidiary of military contractor Lockheed Martin, wrote in a tweet that the company intended to cooperate with the NTSB investigation. “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,” the company wrote. “Safety is our top priority; if there are any actionable findings from the investigation, we will inform our S-76 customers.”
In September, soap opera actor and pilot Lorenzo Lamas posted a picture with a helicopter bearing the same N-number, or a registration number given to aircraft, as the one that crashed Sunday with the caption, “Sun setting on another glorious day. Life is a mirror and will reflect back to the thinker what he thinks into it - Ernest Holmes.” Lamas also appeared to tweet that he was safe after the crash, before the post in question was deleted. He did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On Jan. 23, Lamas tweeted another picture of a helicopter, this one captioned, “Pilot Life. Catalina Island.” The former Falcon Crest star was apparently referencing a popular tourist destination off the coast of Los Angeles, with which Island Express Holding Corporation has contracted to conduct helicopter tours since 1982, according to archived images from their website.
In 2008, another of the company's helicopters, this one a Eurocopter AS 350, crashed during rainy weather on the west side of Catalina Island, the Daily News of Los Angeles reported at the time. The crash ignited a brush fire upon impact, killing two men and one woman on board and leaving three others in critical condition. An FAA and NTSB investigation said the cause of the crash appeared to be engine failure, according to the Associated Press.
The Federal Aviation Administration was also investigating Sunday’s crash, and representatives from the agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Bryant has said that he used helicopters because it was too hard for him to sit in a car for a two-hour traffic clogged trip to Los Angeles for a game. In another interview, he said using the helicopter to get to practices and media appearances allowed him to spend more time with his daughters.
In 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that Bryant had once played a trick on Lakers GM Rob Pelinka involving a helicopter, ordering the pilot to pull military maneuvers and shut off the engine midair.
“My life was flashing before my eyes,” Pelinka told newspaper. “I almost had a heart attack. Kobe’s just sitting there calm and collected.”
—With reporting from Tracy Connor
Correction: A previous version of the story conflated engine hours and airframe hours for the aircraft in question. We regret the error.