2020 Calabasas helicopter crash

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2020 Calabasas helicopter crash
The debris field (49456020157).jpg
Debris at the crash site the day after the accident
Accident
DateJanuary 26, 2020 (2020-01-26)
SummaryCrashed in heavy fog; under investigation
SiteCalabasas, California, US
34°08′12″N 118°41′32″W / 34.1368°N 118.6923°W / 34.1368; -118.6923Coordinates: 34°08′12″N 118°41′32″W / 34.1368°N 118.6923°W / 34.1368; -118.6923
Aircraft
Aircraft typeSikorsky S-76B
OperatorIsland Express Holdings Inc.
RegistrationN72EX
Flight originJohn Wayne Airport, Orange County, California
DestinationCamarillo Airport, Camarillo, California
Occupants9
Passengers8
Crew1
Fatalities9
Survivors0

On January 26, 2020, a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter crashed in Calabasas, California, around 30 miles (48 kilometres) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, en route from John Wayne Airport to Camarillo Airport. The helicopter was carrying nine people: retired NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, baseball coach John Altobelli, five other passengers, and the pilot. All those on board died.[1][2]

Accident[edit]

On January 26, 2020, at approximately 9:06 a.m. PST (17:06 UTC), Bryant departed from John Wayne Airport (SNA) in Orange County, California, in a 1991 Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, registration N72EX, along with eight other people: his 13-year-old daughter Gianna; her teammates, 13-year-olds Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester; their parents, Keri and John Altobelli (head baseball coach at Orange Coast College) and Sarah Chester; basketball assistant coach Christina Mauser; and pilot Ara Zobayan.[3][4][5][6] They were heading to a basketball game at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park, where Bryant was scheduled to coach Gianna's team.[7][8] Flight records showed that the helicopter had flown the same journey the day before without incident to Camarillo Airport (CMA), a major general aviation airport about 20 minutes by car from Mamba Sports Academy.[9] The previous day's flight had taken only 30 minutes; in contrast, driving from Bryant's home in Newport Beach to the academy would have taken at least two hours.[9]

Weather conditions[edit]

The Los Angeles Police Air Support Division had grounded its police helicopters on the morning of January 26 due to poor visibility and low ceiling;[10] Air Support Division rules require at least 2 miles (3.2 km) of visibility and an 800-foot (240 m) cloud ceiling.[11] At the time that N72EX took off from SNA, visibility was 5 miles (8.0 km) with a cloud ceiling of 1,300 feet (400 m), and it was operated by Island Express Helicopters Inc. as a 14 C.F.R. 135 (Part 135) on-demand passenger flight under visual flight rules (VFR).[12][13] Flying through clouds is possible if a pilot elects to operate under instrument flight rules (IFR), but according to a former pilot for Island Express and FAA records, the company's pilots were not allowed to fly under IFR.[14] In addition, the company's Part 135 operating certificate, issued in 1998, limited operations to on-demand VFR-only flights.[13] Even if the company's operating certificate and rules had allowed for flying under IFR, that option would have led to lengthy delays and detours (thereby using up any anticipated time savings) because of severe congestion in Los Angeles controlled airspace.[12][15] Bryant's celebrity status would not have given the helicopter priority in that airspace.[12]

According to an automated weather station, the cloud ceiling (bottom of the cloud layer) at the Van Nuys Airport was 1,100 feet (340 m) above ground level. Closer to the site of the crash, the cloud top extended up to 2,400 feet (730 m) above mean sea level, meaning that aircraft between those two altitudes would be enveloped in clouds.[13]

Flight[edit]

Key locations during flight on January 26, 2020[12][16][17]
1
9:06 a.m.: John Wayne Airport (SNA), flight's origin
2
9:17 a.m.: Flight deviates from prior routes, continuing NW along I-5
3
9:20–9:32 a.m.: Flight holds over Glendale for air traffic at Burbank Airport
4
9:39 a.m.: Flight approved to turn SW shortly after reaching SR 118
5
9:42 a.m.: Flight arrives at and starts to follow Ventura Freeway west
6
9:44 a.m.: Southern California TRACON advises altitude is too low for flight following; pilot states intention to climb to avoid cloud layer (last transmission); flight climbs to 2,300 ft (700 m) and turns south, then starts sharply descending turn to SE
7
9:45 a.m.: Crash site
8
Camarillo Airport (CMA), intended destination
Audio of the radio transmissions between the helicopter and controllers until contact was lost
Flight path as reconstructed by the NTSB

Because visual flight rules prohibit a pilot from flying into or near clouds, the helicopter ascended to an altitude of 800 feet (240 m) above mean sea level (amsl) while flying northwest from SNA.[12] On most of its previous flights to Camarillo, the helicopter had turned west at Downtown Los Angeles and flown over the Santa Monica Mountains until it picked up the Ventura Freeway (US 101).[15] On January 26, that was not an option for VFR flights because of a deep marine layer which had pushed fog from the Pacific Ocean into the Santa Monica Mountains.[15] Instead, the helicopter continued northwest, passed over Boyle Heights near Dodger Stadium and began following the route of the Golden State Freeway (I-5); as the flight approached Glendale,[18] the pilot requested permission from the Burbank Airport air traffic controllers to transition to following the Ventura Freeway (US 101); Burbank controllers advised the pilot that weather conditions around the airport dictated IFR and held the helicopter circling in a holding pattern for 11 minutes starting at 9:21 a.m. (17:21 UTC)[16] before granting it permission at 9:32 a.m. (17:32 UTC) to proceed into the controlled airspace around Burbank Airport.[12][13]

Permission to proceed was granted under special VFR, requiring the pilot to stay under 2,500 feet (760 m) altitude.[19] The helicopter climbed to an altitude of 1,400 feet (430 m) amsl.[13] After proceeding through the Burbank controlled airspace, the flight turned west, following the Ronald Reagan Freeway (SR 118) as it passed into the Van Nuys Airport controlled airspace; the Van Nuys controllers shortly afterward approved a turn southwest towards the Ventura Freeway (US 101) at 9:39 a.m. (17:39 UTC).[16] Pilot Ara Zobayan then confirmed he was still in VFR flight conditions at 1,500 feet (460 m) and acknowledged the handoff to Southern California air traffic control (SCT).[13][20]

By 9:42 a.m. (17:42 UTC), the helicopter had arrived at and started following the Ventura Freeway west, entering more hilly terrain at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley. At 9:44 a.m. (17:44 UTC), in response to a request from the pilot, the SCT controller advised the helicopter it was too close to terrain for flight following, a tracking service that would have provided the VFR flight with continuous verbal updates on air traffic.[13][20] The SCT controller terminated flight following and was subsequently relieved by a different controller. Because the original SCT controller had gone off duty, the relieving controller asked the pilot to identify and asked what his intentions were.[13] In a press conference, NTSB Member Jennifer Homendy stated the pilot then advised air traffic control he was putting the aircraft into a climb to avoid a cloud layer, intending to level out at 4,000 feet (1,200 m);[13] this was the last transmission made by the pilot.[17][21]

As the ground started to rise, the helicopter went into a climb, gaining approximately 1,000 feet (300 m) of altitude in 36 seconds.[12] According to transponder data, the helicopter first entered a climbing turn to the left, taking a southern heading and peaking at an altitude of 2,300 feet (700 m) amsl (1,500 feet (460 m) above ground level [agl]). Eight seconds later,[13] at about 9:45:18 a.m. (17:45 UTC) the helicopter, continuing its left turn to the southeast, started to descend rapidly. It reached a descent rate of more than 4,000 ft/min (20 m/s) and a ground speed of 160 knots (300 km/h)[13][22] before it struck a hillside at 9:45:39 a.m. at an elevation of approximately 1,085 feet (331 m).[11][17][23]

View of grass-covered hillside and trail at the crash site of the 2020 Calabasas helicopter crash. In the center of the photograph, debris from the helicopter crash can be seen, along with investigators working amongst the wreckage.
Still image from drone video at the last recorded ADS-B signal; drone was deployed by NTSB to duplicate the flight path of N72EX.

Impact and emergency response[edit]

The helicopter crashed and caught fire in Calabasas, California, near the intersection of Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street, as reported by a 9-1-1 emergency call at 9:47 a.m. (17:47 UTC).[18][24] The crash occurred on the New Millennium Loop Trail,[25] on a hillside behind the headquarters of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District.[26] The hillside is public land managed by both the water district and another government agency known as the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority,[27] and forms part of a small valley that also happens to be the upper end of Malibu Canyon.[15]

At the time, weather conditions in Calabasas were reported to be foggy.[18] The helicopter came down between two groups of mountain bikers[25] who called 9-1-1.[26] Witnesses reported that the helicopter's engine was "sputtering" before the crash.[4][18] Others reported seeing the helicopter flying into the ground at a "fairly significant rate of speed." It is unclear whether a distress call was made.[7]

The crash started a 14-acre (1,000 m2) brush fire that was difficult to extinguish because of the presence of magnesium (which reacts with oxygen and water).[18] Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighters responded to the scene and extinguished the fire by 10:30.[24] The debris from the crash was scattered on steep terrain over a field estimated to extend 500 to 600 feet (150 to 180 m).[16] Firefighters hiked to the site and paramedics rappelled from a helicopter to the scene but could not locate any survivors;[23] all nine occupants of the helicopter were killed in the crash.[28] Based on examinations by the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, all nine occupants died from blunt trauma.[29]

Aircraft N72EX[edit]

N72EX

Until 2015, the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter N72EX was owned by the State of Illinois, which used it to transport governors and other officials.[30] According to FAA and California Secretary of State records, the helicopter was registered to the Island Express Holding Corporation, based in Fillmore, California.[18][31] The passenger compartment of the helicopter was converted from configuration seating twelve (as N761LL) to eight after the sale to Island Express.[13] It was not generally known in the aftermath of the crash whether Bryant had chartered the aircraft or leased it full-time.[32]

The aircraft did not have a flight data recorder (FDR) or cockpit voice recorder (CVR); helicopters in the U.S. are not required to carry them. Although the S-76B originally had a CVR installed, records show that Island Express removed the CVR shortly after acquiring the helicopter from the State of Illinois in March 2016.[16][33] The helicopter was also not equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS); although the NTSB recommended that all helicopters equipped with six or more passenger seats be equipped with a TAWS after a 2004 S-76A crash, the FAA did not implement the recommendation.[34]

Reporting and investigation[edit]

The Los Angeles County sheriff speaking about the crash
Aerial view of Calabasas, roughly centered on crash site. The helicopter entered from the upper right corner of this image, curved around Van Nuys Airport, then attempted to follow the Ventura Freeway (US 101) in order to exit to the lower left corner.
NTSB investigators examining the wreckage

At 11:24 a.m., less than two hours after the crash, TMZ was the first news source to confirm Bryant's death.[35][36] TMZ was later criticized by local law enforcement for reporting the story before the coroner's office had the opportunity to confirm the identities of the helicopter's occupants and inform their families. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva stated, "It would be extremely disrespectful to understand that your loved one had perished and you learn [that] through TMZ."[37][36]

At 2:30 p.m., the Los Angeles County Sheriff and Los Angeles County Fire Department held a joint press conference detailing initial aspects of the crash.[37] Los Angeles County fire chief Daryl Osby confirmed the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were on the scene investigating.[8][38][39] A "Go Team" consisting of 18 people, including specialists and investigators from the NTSB, arrived in the evening to search for a flight recorder.[40] As a result of the crash, an investigation was launched into Lockheed Martin's Sikorsky S-76B.[41]

Sheriff Villanueva urged people to stay away, because people had flooded into residential neighborhoods around the crash site and the traffic was getting in the way of responders.[42] The FAA imposed a five-mile no-fly zone around the crash site up to an altitude of 5,000 feet at the request of Bryant's wife, Vanessa, in order to protect the victims' privacy.[43][42] The Medical Examiner-Coroner was able to initially remove the remains of three of the nine victims overnight.[42] In response to attempts at unauthorized access during the first evening after the crash, Sheriff Villanueva assigned deputies to patrol the rugged terrain on horseback and all-terrain vehicles in order to enforce a secure perimeter[44] and prevent access by souvenir hunters.[45] It was later reported that Los Angeles County sheriff deputies had taken and shared unauthorized graphic photos of the crash scene and were ordered by Sheriff Villanueva to delete the photographs to avoid discipline.[46] The deletion of these photos led the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to question whether that amounted to a cover-up.[47]

It was reported the following day that the pilot was told that he was at a "too low level for flight following", which he had apparently requested, by air traffic controllers moments before the helicopter crashed into the hillside. This means that the helicopter was too low to be tracked by air traffic control, but does not necessarily mean that it was too low to fly safely.[48]

By January 28, all nine bodies had been recovered from the crash site by the Medical Examiner-Coroner. The bodies of Kobe Bryant and three others were identified through fingerprints on January 28, and the five other bodies were identified on January 30 after DNA testing and analysis.[49] Autopsies were conducted on January 28.[50] By February 1, the Medical Examiner-Coroner had released most of the victims' bodies to their families, including the Bryants.[49]

A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board said on January 31 that Island Express Helicopters, which owned the helicopter that crashed, was not certified to fly in foggy conditions. It is unknown if the pilot was flying on instruments at the time of the crash.[51]

On January 30, the wreckage of the helicopter was transported from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Arizona for further analysis by NTSB investigators.[52] However, the secure perimeter remained in place around the crash site,[27] pending removal of hazardous materials (especially jet fuel and hydraulic fluids) by a private hazmat cleanup crew under the supervision of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.[53]

On February 7, the NTSB released an "investigative update" regarding the crash.[13][54] Final findings, causes, and recommendations are not expected until the NTSB releases a full report expected 12-18 months after the accident. Preliminary findings from the NTSB update show that there was no evidence of engine failure [55] The report indicates that "...viewable sections of the engines showed no evidence of an uncontained or catastrophic internal failure" [54] and furthermore that damage to the blades were "consistent with powered rotation at the time of impact."[54] The update also revealed that the "impact crater was 24 feet-by-15 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep" and the main wreckage came to rest about 127 feet away from the point of initial impact at an angle of 347⁰ where it was consumed by fire. Much of the helicopter, cabin, cockpit and instrumentation were "highly fragmented" and destroyed by the impact and subsequent fire.

On February 24, 2020, Vanessa Bryant, Kobe Bryant's wife and the mother of Gianna, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the helicopter company that was transporting the 8 passengers as well as the heirs of the estate of the pilot, Ara Zobayan.[56][57]

Memorials[edit]

A makeshift memorial was set up outside Staples Center shortly after Bryant's death

Around 200 people gathered at the foot of the hill close to the crash, with many wearing Bryant's jersey and holding basketballs. People also formed an impromptu memorial at the Staples Center, the home arena of the Los Angeles Lakers (the team that Bryant had played for during his entire 20 year NBA career, from 1996 to 2016) just hours before the arena was scheduled to host the Grammy Awards.[58] During the ceremony, host Alicia Keys and Boyz II Men performed "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" in tribute to Bryant, and other performers, including Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Run-DMC, Aerosmith and DJ Khaled, incorporated tributes to Bryant in their performances.[59] Bryant's two retired jerseys hanging in the rafters of the Staples Center were illuminated by spotlight.[60] A week after Bryant's death, Staples Center staff began to clean up the makeshift memorial outside the arena, but promised to catalog, pack, and ship all nonperishable items to his family.[61] Among the items thus recovered were 1,350 basketballs, as well as "25,000 candles, 5,000 signs or letters, 500 stuffed animals, 350 pairs of shoes and 14 banners."[61]

Fans created a memorial for Bryant outside of the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, which Bryant attended from 1992 to 1996. Jerseys, dedicated basketballs, teddy bears, flowers and candles were all laid down to memorialize Bryant.[62]

Landmarks around the world, including the Los Angeles International Airport, Madison Square Garden, the Empire State Building and the Santa Ana Water tower in Bryant's home of Orange County, CA were lit purple and gold in Bryant's memory.[10][63][64][65]

On February 2, the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa, lit up with images in tribute to Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. The display was arranged by the Executive Chairman of Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC) Ahmed Sultan Bin Sulayem.[66]

On February 7, Kobe and Gianna Bryant were buried in a private funeral in Pacific View Memorial Park in the Corona del Mar neighborhood of Newport Beach.[67] A celebration of life for Kobe and Gianna Bryant was held at Staples Center on February 24, 2020.[68]

Basketball[edit]

Fans of Bryant mourning his death

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement:

The NBA family is devastated by the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna ... For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning. He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary ... But he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability. He was generous with the wisdom he acquired and saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.[69][70]

Gregg Downer, Bryant's high school basketball coach, was "completely shocked and devastated" by the news and was initially too distraught to speak to the media. Downer coached Bryant at Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia from 1992 to 1996 and won the state championship with Bryant in 1996.[71]

Michael Jordan, to whom Bryant was often compared, said in a statement: "Words can't describe the pain I am feeling. I loved Kobe – he was like a little brother to me... We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force."[72] Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant's Lakers teammate from 1996 to 2004 and with whom he shared a friendship and later a heavily publicized feud, said that he was "sick" and "had no words to express the pain."[73] Several NBA teams paid tribute to Bryant during their games that night with intentional on-court violations referring to his uniform numbers: violations of the 24-second shot clock and the rule requiring teams to advance the ball past midcourt within eight seconds.[74] Kareem Abdul-Jabbar posted a video on Twitter expressing his condolences.[75] LeBron James, who had passed Bryant on the list of NBA career scoring leaders the previous night and had spoken to Bryant on the morning of the accident, posted a statement on Instagram, saying "I'm heartbroken and devastated ... I promise you I'll continue your legacy."[76] Jerry West, Laker great and general manager who had orchestrated the deal to acquire Bryant for the Lakers, said that "I think the thing that resonates with me most... One person with one name – Kobe – you wouldn't have to mention his last name" and that it was the "saddest day of his life" to learn that the families in the helicopter crash had died.[77]

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said "that the number 24 will never again be worn by a Dallas Maverick."[78][79] Several NBA players previously wearing Bryant's uniform numbers decided to change to new numbers in honor of Bryant.[80]

Gianna Bryant was a fan of the UConn Huskies women's basketball team and had attended multiple games, and she had hoped to attend and play for the university. UConn tweeted an image of a jersey and flowers placed on their bench with the tribute message "A Husky forever".[81]

The NBA postponed the Los Angeles Lakers' game against the Los Angeles Clippers that had been scheduled for January 28, two days after the accident.[82] On January 30, the first game after the crash was played at Staples Center between the Clippers and the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers honored Bryant before the game, with Paul George narrating a video tribute to Bryant. The next day, the Lakers played their first game after the crash against the Portland Trail Blazers. Ahead of the match, Lakers paid tribute to Bryant and all who lost their lives in the crash with a ceremony held just before tip off, with Usher singing "Amazing Grace" and Boyz II Men singing the National Anthem, while Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth reunited to perform "See You Again" at halftime. James also delivered a speech to the crowd before the game, and every starter in the Lakers starting lineup was announced with Bryant's name. The game was the second-most watched game in ESPN history, averaging 4.41 million viewers.[83]

Harbor Day School, where Gianna Bryant went to school, retired her jersey number 2 on February 5, 2020.[84]

On February 15, commissioner Adam Silver announced that the NBA All-Star Game MVP Award would be renamed to the NBA All-Star Game Kobe Bryant Most Valuable Player in honor of Bryant.[85] Also, in the 2020 NBA All-Star Game on February 16, each player on Team Giannis wore the jersey number 24, in honor of Kobe Bryant, while each player on Team LeBron wore the jersey number 2, in honor of Gianna Bryant.[86]

Soon after the accident the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield put Kobe's name on their large sign out front as fans left candles and flowers on the large statue of James Naismith in front of the entrance.[87] A vigil and a moment of silence was held inside the shrine with many fans of Bryant and the Lakers in attendance, despite it being in a strongly Celtics fans region.[88] In addition to the Hall of Fame turning the thousands of lights of the large sphere of the shrine itself purple and gold numerous other office buildings in downtown Springfield did as well. Several billboards on Interstate 90 in Massachusetts were also dedicated to the memory of Kobe Bryant.

Other sports[edit]

Many Major League Baseball, National Football League, and National Hockey League players, teams and other organizations memorialized Bryant in the immediate aftermath of the crash.[89][90][91]

Many NFL players took time in the 2020 Pro Bowl to pay their respect to Bryant in the form of prayers and celebration tributes.[92] A week later, at Super Bowl LIV, the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers both stood on the 24-yard line on their respective ends of the field, and held a moment of silence to honor Kobe, Gianna, and the seven other people killed in the crash, along with Chris Doleman, who passed away two days after Bryant. Hard Rock Stadium, the host site of Super Bowl LIV, was also lit up in purple and gold, the colors of the Lakers, the day after the crash, to honor Bryant.

WWE paid tribute to Bryant during its 2020 Royal Rumble pay-per-view later that night, as did All Elite Wrestling during that week's AEW Dynamite in Cleveland with the Southern California-based stable SoCal Uncensored wearing Bryant jerseys to the ring,[93] and many professional wrestlers expressed their condolences for the Bryant family.[94][95]

Many ATP Tour tennis players paid tribute to Bryant during the 2020 Australian Open, including Novak Djokovic, who noted: "He was one of the greatest athletes of all time – he inspired myself and many other people around the world."[96][97]

A.C. Milan, Bryant's favorite soccer team growing up in Italy, wore black armbands in memory of him in their Coppa Italia match against Torino on January 28, 2020. A minute of silence was also held before the match.[98][99] Many soccer players and teams paid tribute to Bryant during matches and on social media.[100] On January 26, 2020, after scoring his second goal from penalty spot against Lille OSC, Neymar paid tribute to Bryant by striking out four fingers of his right and two fingers of his left hand to mark number 24 towards the camera and then by offering a prayer to the heavens.[101] On February 27, 2020, before Los Angeles FC's home match against Club León in the CONCACAF Champions League, LAFC fans unveiled a tifo honoring the Bryants; team captain Carlos Vela also wore an armband with Kobe's initials and uniform numbers.[102]

In politics[edit]

U.S. president Donald Trump, former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, California governor Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, and other American politicians all expressed their condolences.[103][104][105][106]

In popular culture[edit]

American rappers Jay Electronica and Jay-Z recorded the somber track "A.P.I.D.T.A." on the night of the helicopter crash, later released as the final track on Jay Electronica's debut album A Written Testimony on March 13, 2020.[107] ESPN's Elle Duncan shared an emotional story while she hosted the SportsCenter show on January 27, 2020 about how proud Bryant was of being a father to his daughters;[108] Duncan recalled, amongst other things, Bryant telling her: "I would have five more girls if I could. I'm a girl dad.[109] Duncan's story went viral and inspired other fathers across the world to celebrate their relationships with their daughters, using the hashtag #GirlDad.[110]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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External links[edit]

NTSB videos[edit]