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Jan. 27, 2020, 7:54 p.m. EST

Kobe Bryant’s helicopter may have gotten lost in the fog, experts say

Pilot had indicated he’d fly higher to avoid cloud layer

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By Associated Press


Reuters
Los Angeles County firefighters arrive on the scene of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant in Calabasas, Calif., on Sunday.

CALABASAS, Calif. — The pilot of the helicopter that crashed into a hillside outside 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, an accident investigator said.

The pilot had asked for and received special clearance to fly in heavy fog just minutes before Sunday’s crash and was flying at 1,400 feet when he went south and then west, said Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board, which went to the crash scene Monday to collect evidence.

The pilot then asked for air traffic controllers to provide “flight following” aid but was told the craft was too low, 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. and is consistent with the accident.

Coroner’s officials worked to recover victims’ remains Monday from the hillside outside Los Angeles where the helicopter crashed in a wreck that aviation experts said may have been caused by the pilot becoming disoriented in the fog.

While the cause of the tragedy is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, 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 went down Sunday morning, killing 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, 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 L.A.,” 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 in Calabasas, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, around 9:45 a.m. at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24. 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, the data showed.

Randy Waldman, a helicopter flight instructor who teaches at the nearby Van Nuys airport, said its likely the pilot got disoriented in the fog and the helicopter went into a fatal dive.

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