• Sikorsky S-76 helicopter model is popular with heads of state, executives and celebrities
  • Bryant has long used helicopters to avoid LA’s heavy traffic
  • Most observers suspect poor weather conditions caused Sunday’s crash

Defense contractor and aerospace titan Lockheed Martin (LMT) said it will investigate the Sunday crash of its Sikorsky S-76B helicopter which killed nine people, including retired basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, in Calabasas, Calif.

Lockheed had acquired Sikorsky Aircraft of Stratford, Conn. in late 2015.

The National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, has sent a team of investigators to the crash site to determine what caused the disaster.

The Federal Aviation Administration is also probing the crash.

"We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by [Sunday’s] Sikorsky S-76B accident in Calabasas," Lockheed said in a statement. "We have been in contact with the NTSB and stand ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer."

Lockheed added: "safety is our top priority; if there are any actionable findings from the investigation, we will inform our S-76 customers."

The S-76 series of helicopters were initially introduced in 1977, Lockheed said on its website, and that they were “originally built for the rigorous demands of offshore oil and gas transportation.” The helicopter model later expanded to serve other markets, including executive transport, search and rescue, and medical/air ambulance services, among others.

All five branches of the U.S. military also use Sikorsky helicopters.

Lockheed also said on its website that it has sold 875 of its Sikorsky S-76 helicopter model since 1977, with almost two-thirds of them sold to overseas buyers.

More than 178 customers, the company stated, operate S-76 helicopters in a corporate or VIP role. “Ten countries rely on the S-76 for the head of state mission,” it added. “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 has sold 103 units of the S-76B model, the craft Bryant was killed in.

The model can carry up to 12 passengers and usually costs about $13 million.

Bryant had long used Sikorsky helicopters since his playing days with the Lakers in order to avoid the heavy traffic of Los Angeles’ freeways and because his 6-foot-6 body couldn’t tolerate the strain of sitting in a car too long.

While the cause of the crash is yet to be determined, weather reports indicated that conditions were overcast and very foggy in Calabasas on Sunday morning at the time of the crash. Reportedly Los Angeles International Airport had delayed some flights over the weekend due to poor visibility.

A Sikorsky S-76 ambulance helicopter crashed in Canada in 2013. That same year, a Sikorsky S-76A crashed in Louisiana, killing all three people on board. The NTSB later determined that crash was caused by a rotor blade fracture.

The helicopter Bryant and his party were flying in was manufactured in 1991 and was formerly owned by the State of Illinois. In 2015 the state sold the aircraft, and five others, for a total of $2.5 million, to alleviate its budget pressures as ordered by then Governor Bruce Rauner. The state had owned the helicopter since 2007, using it for “VIP transport” of the governor and others.

The Bryant helicopter itself was reportedly sold for $515,000 to an entity called Island Express Holding Corporation of Van Nuys, Calif.

Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Island Express, told the Los Angeles Times that he flew Bryant from 2014 to 2016 and that the aircraft model was in “fantastic” condition. He also noted that Island Express adheres to a “very good maintenance program.”

Deetz said he thinks the foggy weather conditions on Sunday morning caused the crash, rather than any engine or mechanical issues.

“The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft -- it just doesn’t happen,” Deetz said.

Chuck Street, executive director of the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Operators Association, also praised Island Express.

“They had a very, very good safety culture,” he said. “Whenever I was over there or talking with their pilots the number 1 priority was safety.”

Paul Kennard, a former U.K. Royal Air Force helicopter pilot and defense consultant, told Forbes that the fog likely made it more challenging for the pilot while flying near the Santa Monica Mountains.

“Mountain flying is a specialist skill -- even on a good day you can end up with all sorts of false horizons and visual illusions,” he said. “You exacerbate that with haze and not having the tops of the hills clear, that makes it worse.”

The Los Angeles Times also reported that the S-76 helicopter model had among the lowest number and rate of fatal crashes of all civilian helicopters in the U.S. from 2006 to 2016.

“[The S-76 is] well designed,” said aviation consultant William Lawrence, a retired Marine Corps colonel and helicopter test pilot and instructor. “It’s robust. It’s a sturdy helicopter. It’s why executives like to fly in helicopters like that -- they have significantly fewer problems.”

The U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, or USHST, a volunteer team of U.S. government and aviation industry leaders, reported that between 2009 and 2019, U.S. civil helicopters flew almost 34 million flight hours and suffered 233 fatal accidents.

“Although instructional flying, aerial observation, air ambulance operations and sightseeing tours have their share of fatal accidents, the numbers are lower than would be expected when compared to their share of flight hours,” USHST stated. “For example, helicopters within the air tour and sightseeing industry fly 10% of U.S. helicopter flight hours, so it would be expected that they would experience 10% of all fatal accidents. However, this is not the case. As an industry, they operate more safely than data would predict.”

USHST also noted that for the first six months of 2019, the U.S. helicopter industry witnessed 15 fatal accidents with 27 fatalities. In 2008, the sector saw 35 fatal accidents, the highest such figure in recent years.