Helicopter tried to climb to avoid clouds before crash

  • In this Feb. 14, 2016, file photo, Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant (24) hugs his daughter Gianna on the court in warm-ups before first half NBA All-Star Game basketball action in Toronto. Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and several others are dead after their helicopter went down in Southern California on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP) MARK BLINCH

  • Investigators work the scene of a helicopter crash that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and several others Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) Mark J. Terrill

  • FILE - In this April 13, 2016 file photo Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, right, fist-bumps his daughter Gianna after the last NBA basketball game of his career, against the Utah Jazz in Los Angeles. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Gianna also died in the crash. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, file) Jae C. Hong

  • FILE - In this March 28, 2016, file photo, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant waves to the fans after his introduction before the start of the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, in Salt Lake City. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. He was 41. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File) Rick Bowmer

  • FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2009 file photo Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) reacts after a slam dunk shot in the first half of an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York. Bryant had 61 points in the game. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Kathy Willens

  • Fans mourn the loss of Kobe Bryant in front of La Live across from Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday. (Keith Birmingham/The Orange County Register via AP) Keith Birmingham

  • FILE - In this July 26, 2018 file photo former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch during the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine, Calif. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Gianna also died in the crash. She was 13. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) Chris Carlson

  • A woman is emotional at the scene of a small memorial left in remembrance to Kobe Bryant at the entrance of the Bryant Gymnasium at Lower Merion High School, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Wynnewood, Pa. The 41-year-old Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in the crash in Calabasas in foggy weather conditions Sunday morning.(AP Photo/Chris Szagola) Chris Szagola

  • In this June 14, 2009, photo, Los Angles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant celebrates with his daughter Gianna, following the Lakers 99-86 defeat of the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Amway Arena in Orlando. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP) Stephen M. Dowell

  • A man pays respects at a mural of Kobe Bryant in an alley in downtown Los Angeles after word of the Lakers star's death in a helicopter crash, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Hartman) Matt Hartman

  • Shaheem Cochran-Todd of North Philadelphia drops off flowers in remembrance to Kobe Bryant at a small memorial at the entrance of the Bryant Gymnasium at Lower Merion High School, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Wynnewood, Pa. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola) Chris Szagola

  • People gather at a memorial near Staples Center after the death of Laker legend Kobe Bryant Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker) Michael Owen Baker

  • Christina Espinoza places a candle inside a small memorial made in remembrance of former basketball player Kobe Bryant in Calabasas, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, following reports of his death in a helicopter crash in southern California. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo) Kelvin Kuo

  • Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant sits on the shoulders of her father, Kobe, as they attend the women's soccer match between the United States and China Thursday, April 10, 2014, in San Diego. Bryant, the 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Gianna also died in the crash. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi, file) Lenny Ignelzi

Published: 1/27/2020 5:01:36 PM

CALABASAS, Calif. — The pilot of the helicopter that crashed near Los Angeles, killing former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others, told air traffic controllers in his last radio message that he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer before plunging more than 1,000 feet into a hillside, an accident investigator said.

Radar indicated the helicopter reached a height of 2,300 feet Sunday morning before descending, and the wreckage was found at 1,085 feet, Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board said during a news conference Monday afternoon.

NTSB investigators went to the crash site in Calabasas on Monday to collect evidence.

“The debris field is pretty extensive,” Homendy said.

“A piece of the tail is down the hill,” she said. “The fuselage is on the other side of that hill. And then the main rotor is about 100 yards beyond that.”

Some experts suggested that the pilot might have gotten disoriented because of fog but Homendy said investigating teams would look at everything from the pilot’s history to the engines.

“We look at man, machine and the environment,” she said. “And weather is just a small portion of that.”

The pilot had asked for and received special clearance to fly in heavy fog just minutes before the crash and was flying at 1,400 feet when he went south and then west, Homendy said.

The pilot then asked for air traffic controllers to provide “flight following” radar assistance but was told the craft was too low for that assistance, Homendy said.

About four minutes later, “the pilot advised they were climbing to avoid a cloud layer,” she said. “When ATC asked what the pilot planned to do, there was no reply. Radar data indicates the helicopter climbed to 2,300 feet and then began a left descending turn. Last radar contact was around 9:45 a.m.”

Two minutes later, someone on the ground called 911 to report the crash.

Randy Waldman, a helicopter flight instructor who teaches at the nearby Van Nuys airport, said a disoriented pilot might have only moments to avoid a fatal dive.

“If you’re flying visually, if you get caught in a situation where you can’t see out the windshield, the life expectancy of the pilot and the aircraft is maybe 10, 15 seconds, and it happens all the time, and it’s really a shame,” Waldman said.

Some experts raised questions of whether the helicopter should have even been flying. The weather was so foggy that the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff’s department had grounded their own choppers.

The Sikorsky S-76 killed the retired athlete along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and everyone else aboard and scattering debris over an area the size of a football field.

Crews recovered three bodies on Sunday and resumed the effort on Monday amid an outpouring of grief and shock around the world over the loss of the basketball great who helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles during his dazzling 20-year career.

The pilot was identified as Ara Zobayan. Homendy said the pilot had reported 8,200 hours of flight time by July 2019. He was commercially certified as a pilot and certified as a flight instructor, she said.

Several aviation experts said it is not uncommon for helicopter pilots to be given such permission, though some thought it unusual that it would be granted in airspace as busy as that over Los Angeles.

But Kurt Deetz, who flew for Bryant dozens of times in the same chopper that went down, said permission is often granted in the area.

“It happened all the time in the winter months in LA,” Deetz said. “You get fog.”

The helicopter left Santa Ana in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, shortly after 9 a.m., heading north and then west. Bryant was believed to be headed for his youth sports academy in nearby Thousand Oaks, which was holding a basketball tournament Sunday in which Bryant’s daughter, known as Gigi, was competing.

Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank to the north and Van Nuys to the northwest. At one point, the controllers instructed the chopper to circle because of other planes in the area before proceeding.

The aircraft crashed about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. When it struck the ground, it was flying at about 184 mph and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, according to data from Flightradar24.

Waldman said the same thing happened to John F. Kennedy Jr. when his plane dropped out of the sky near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in 1999.

“A lot of times somebody who’s doing it for a living is pressured to get their client to where they have to go,” Waldman said. “They take chances that maybe they shouldn’t take.”

Bryant had been known since his playing days for taking helicopters instead of braving the notoriously snarled Los Angeles traffic. “I’m not going into LA without the Mamba chopper,” he joked on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in 2018, referring to his own nickname, Black Mamba.

David Hoeppner, an expert on helicopter design, said he won’t fly on helicopters.

“Part of it is the way they certify and design these things,” said Hoeppner, a retired engineering professor at the University of Utah. “But the other part is helicopter pilots often fly in conditions where they shouldn’t be flying.”

Jerry Kidrick, a retired Army colonel who flew helicopters in Iraq and now teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, said the helicopter’s rapid climb and fast descent suggest the pilot was disoriented.

When that happens, he said, pilots must instantly switch from visual cues to flying the aircraft using only the machine’s instruments.

“It’s one of the most dangerous conditions you can be in,” Kidrick said. “Oftentimes, your body is telling you something different than what the instruments are telling you. You can feel like you’re leaning to the left or the right when you’re not. If the pilot isn’t trained well enough to believe the instruments, you get in a panic situation.”

On Sunday, firefighters hiked in with medical equipment and hoses, and medical personnel rappelled to the site from a helicopter. About 20 investigators were on the site early Monday. The Los Angeles County medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, said it could take at least a couple of days to to recover the remains.

Among those killed in the crash were John Altobelli, 56, longtime head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team; his wife, Keri; and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same basketball team as Bryant’s daughter; and Christina Mauser, a girls’ basketball coach at a Southern California elementary school.




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