Final transmission from Kobe Bryant’s helicopter said pilot was climbing to avoid cloud layer

Kobe Bryant’s helicopter pilot told air traffic controllers he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer in a chilling last radio message before the aircraft plunged more than 1,000 feet into a hillside.  

Ara Zobayan 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, an accident investigator said Monday. 

They also revealed there was no black box on board but instead an iPad which was used for flight itinerary as the crash site in Calabasas, California is being actively patrolled for looters by officers on horseback. 

Pilot Zobayan asked for air traffic controllers to provide ‘flight following’ radar assistance but was told the craft was too low for that assistance, Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board 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.’ The wreckage was found at 1,085 feet. 

Homendy said last radar contact was around 9:45 a.m. Two minutes later, someone on the ground called 911 to report the crash. All nine people on board the aircraft, including the former NBA superstar and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna died.

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.’

All nine people on board the aircraft, including the former NBA superstar and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, pictured, died

All nine people on board the aircraft, including the former NBA superstar and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, pictured, died

All nine people on board the aircraft, including the former NBA superstar and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, pictured, died 

The pilot of Kobe Bryant's helicopter 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 Monday

The pilot of Kobe Bryant's helicopter 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 Monday

The pilot of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter 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 Monday

Horse-mounted sherriffs patrol the area at the helicopter crash site of NBA star Kobe Bryant in Calabasas

Horse-mounted sherriffs patrol the area at the helicopter crash site of NBA star Kobe Bryant in Calabasas

Horse-mounted sherriffs patrol the area at the helicopter crash site of NBA star Kobe Bryant in Calabasas

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.’  

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. 

Audio reveals Zobayan, requested to fly under special visual flight rules (SVFR). Under an SVFR clearance, pilots are allowed to fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for visual flight rules (VFR). 

Special VFR clearances are only issued when cloud ceilings are below 1,000 feet above ground level. Flying that low to the ground can be very disorienting and risky, and it’s possible that the pilot became disoriented due to the visibility conditions when the helicopter appeared to veer off its path above US Route 101. 

Sheriff's deputies on horseback leave the scene of a helicopter crash, Monday that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in Calabasas on Sunday

Sheriff's deputies on horseback leave the scene of a helicopter crash, Monday that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in Calabasas on Sunday

Sheriff’s deputies on horseback leave the scene of a helicopter crash, Monday that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in Calabasas on Sunday 

Radar indicated the helicopter reached a height of 2,300 feet before descending, and the wreckage was found at 1,085 feet

Radar indicated the helicopter reached a height of 2,300 feet before descending, and the wreckage was found at 1,085 feet

Radar indicated the helicopter reached a height of 2,300 feet before descending, and the wreckage was found at 1,085 feet

Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighters and coroner staff recover the bodies from the scene of the helicopter crash

Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighters and coroner staff recover the bodies from the scene of the helicopter crash

Los Angeles County Fire Department firefighters and coroner staff recover the bodies from the scene of the helicopter crash

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.

Homendy said pilot Zobayan 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.’

Mourners gather at a makeshift memorial for Kobe Bryant outside the Staples Center after the Lakers star was killed

Mourners gather at a makeshift memorial for Kobe Bryant outside the Staples Center after the Lakers star was killed

Mourners gather at a makeshift memorial for Kobe Bryant outside the Staples Center after the Lakers star was killed

The Sikorsky S-76 killed the retired athlete along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and everyone else aboard

The Sikorsky S-76 killed the retired athlete along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and everyone else aboard

The Sikorsky S-76 killed the retired athlete along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and everyone else aboard

Kobe Bryant, 41, and his daughter, Gianna, 13, were killed when helicopter crashed on a hillside on Sunday. They are pictured with the rest of their family; Kobe leaves behind wife Vanessa, daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, three, seven-month-old Capri

Kobe Bryant, 41, and his daughter, Gianna, 13, were killed when helicopter crashed on a hillside on Sunday. They are pictured with the rest of their family; Kobe leaves behind wife Vanessa, daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, three, seven-month-old Capri

Kobe Bryant, 41, and his daughter, Gianna, 13, were killed when helicopter crashed on a hillside on Sunday. They are pictured with the rest of their family; Kobe leaves behind wife Vanessa, daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, three, seven-month-old Capri

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 pilot was initially flying under VFR, meaning that he was relying on his ability to see the terrain below him. That changed when he was granted the SVFR.

Around 9.20am, the helicopter circled for about 15 minutes just east of Interstate 5, near Glendale. Air traffic controllers held up the helicopter for other aircraft for about 11 minutes, before clearing the Sikorsky S-76 to proceed north along Interstate 5 through Burbank’s airspace. 

Due to the poor visibility, the pilot could have contacted air traffic controllers and requested to switch to instrument flight rules (IFR), which would have allowed him to navigate through the clouds.

However, when pilots fly under IFR, it can take up a lot of time, especially in Southern California, which has an extremely busy airspace. Pilots flying under IFR will have to begin 20 miles or more away from the runway and are required to use special instructions in the form of diagrams called approach plates in order to land.

The aircraft continued under VFR and around 9.40am it turned west to follow US Route 101, the Ventura Highway. At about 9.44am, the helicopter turned again, toward the southeast, and climbed to more than 2,000 feet, in what appeared to be an attempt to put some space between the helicopter and the high terrain.  

In air traffic control audio which was recorded shortly before the crash, the pilot of the former Lakers star’s helicopter is told by a controller that ‘you’re still too low level’ to be tracked by radar.

This did not appear to be a sign of distress, because the helicopter was actually ascending at the time and the controller was referring to the technical difficulty with reading data rather than warning of an imminent crash.  

Victim, John Altobelli is pictured with his wife, Keri

Victim, John Altobelli is pictured with his wife, Keri

Alyssa Altobelli

Alyssa Altobelli

Among those killed in the crash were John Altobelli (left), 56, longtime head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team; his wife, Keri (left, with John); and daughter, Alyssa (right), who played on the same basketball team as Bryant’s daughter, said Altobelli’s brother, Tony, who is the sports information director at the school

Another young player, Payton Chester (left), was also killed in the crash along with her mother Sarah Chester (right)

Another young player, Payton Chester (left), was also killed in the crash along with her mother Sarah Chester (right)

Another young player, Payton Chester (left), was also killed in the crash along with her mother Sarah Chester (right)

Pilot, Ara Zobayan

Pilot, Ara Zobayan

Christina Mauser was killed in the crash

Christina Mauser was killed in the crash

The pilot was identified as Ara Zobayan (left). He was killed in the crash alongside Christina Mauser (right, with her husband, Matt), a girls basketball coach at a nearby private elementary school

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.’

Kobe is seen greeting his daughter Gianna before the NBA All-Star Game in 2016, left

Kobe is seen greeting his daughter Gianna before the NBA All-Star Game in 2016, left

Kobe is seen greeting his daughter Gianna before the NBA All-Star Game in 2016, left

A heartbreaking video of the father-daughter duo attending a basketball game on December 21 resurfaced after the crash

A heartbreaking video of the father-daughter duo attending a basketball game on December 21 resurfaced after the crash

A heartbreaking video of the father-daughter duo attending a basketball game on December 21 resurfaced after the crash 

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.

Another young player, Payton Chester, was also killed in the crash along with her mother Sarah Chester. 

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