60ºF

Helicopter tried to climb to avoid clouds before crash that killed Kobe, 8 others

Expert says helicopter had equipment to operate in foggy condition, but pilot ‘had his hands full’


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 (91 meters) 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.”Coroner’s officials worked to recover victims’ remains Monday from the hillside outside Los Angeles where a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant

The 41-year-old Bryant, who perished with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was one of the game’s most popular players, an 18-time All-Star who helped lead the Lakers to five NBA championships.

The accident generated an outpouring of grief and shock around the world over the sudden loss of the all-time basketball great who spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Thousands of fans, many wearing Bryant jerseys and chanting his name, gathered outside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, home of the Lakers and site of Sunday’s Grammy Awards, where Bryant was honored.

The cause of the crash was unknown, but conditions at the time were such that the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff's department grounded their helicopters.

The Los Angeles County medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, said the rugged terrain complicated efforts to recover the remains. He estimated it would take at least a couple of days to complete the task.

Three bodies were recovered Sunday afternoon before darkness forced the search to be suspended, the coroner's office said.

The Sikorsky S-76 went down in Calabasas, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Authorities did not say where Bryant was going, but the helicopter appeared headed in the direction of his youth sports academy in nearby Thousand Oaks, which was holding a basketball tournament Sunday in which Bryant’s daughter, known as GiGi, was to compete.

Bryant’s helicopter left Santa Ana in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, shortly after 9 a.m., heading north and then west. Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank to the north and Van Nuys to the northwest. The aircraft crashed around 9:45 a.m. at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24.

Air traffic control radio calls that are posted online along with radar tracking the Sikorsky has audio of the tower telling the pilot that the helicopter is too low. Then the conversation ends.

When it struck the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 184 mph and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the data showed.

Jacksonville helicopter pilot Bill Hay and aviation expert said a real nightmare played out in the final moments as the aircraft went down.

“In that particular area where he left, it was flat and good, and when he traversed to his destination he got into a mountainous area the Hidden Hills area the Malibu area and they are prone to fog every single day of the week," Hay said.

During the flight, the Sikorsky pilot noted he was flying under "special visual flight rules,” which allows a pilot to fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for standard visual flight rules, or VFR.

Hay said under VFR, Bryant’s pilot was relying on his own vision and ability rather than the use of instruments. He said he had the necessary equipment and could have asked traffic controllers to switch to instrument flight rules, or IFR, that would have allowed him to navigate through the clouds.

“When you’re in an S-76 you’re in adverse conditions to begin with, and then to try to do a pop up IFR just increases the workload exponentially," Hay said. "It’s not to say that it couldn’t be done. It’s just he already had his hands full to begin with trying to navigate in a low visibility climate and to do a pop up IFR would not have been practical”

KBOI-TV in Boise, Idaho, reported that a girls team that was to have played against GiGi Bryant’s squad returned home Sunday night after learning of the fatal crash during the tournament at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy.

“All of a sudden the games just stopped, the whole facility went silent,” George Rodriguez, coach of the Treasure Valley Hoop Dreams team, told the station. “We heard some girls screaming. Nobody really quite knew what was going on until the news started to break ground and the message got around of the tragic stuff that happened with Kobe.”

Federal safety investigators were sent to the scene. Among other things, they will look at the pilot's history and the chopper's maintenance records, said National Transportation Safety Board board member Jennifer Homendy.

Kurt Deetz, a pilot who used to fly Bryant in the chopper, said the crash was more likely caused by bad weather than by engine or other mechanical problems.

“The likelihood of a catastrophic twin-engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn’t happen,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps, said pilots can become disoriented in low visibility, losing track of which direction is up. Green said a pilot flying an S-76 would be instrument-rated, meaning that person could fly the helicopter without relying on visual cues from outside.

Colin Storm was in his living room in Calabasas when he heard what sounded to him like a low-flying airplane or helicopter.

"It was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “But then we heard some sputtering and then a boom.”

The fog cleared a bit, and Storm could see smoke rising from the hillside in front of his home.

Firefighters hiked in with medical equipment and hoses, and medical personnel rappelled to the site from a helicopter but found no survivors, authorities said.

News of the charismatic superstar's death rocketed around the sports and entertainment worlds, with many taking to Twitter to register their shock, disbelief and anguish.

“Words can't describe the pain I am feeling. I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me," retired NBA great Michael Jordan said. “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."

Bryant retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, finishing two decades with the Lakers as a prolific shot-maker with a sublime all-around game and a relentless competitive drive. He held that spot in the league scoring ranks until Saturday night when the Lakers’ LeBron James passed him for third place during a game in Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown.

He was the league MVP in 2008 and a two-time NBA scoring champion. He teamed with Shaquille O’Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to consecutive NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. He went on to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010.

His Lakers’ tenure was marred by scandal when in 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort. He said the two had consensual sex, and prosecutors later dropped the sexual assault charge at the request of the accuser. The woman filed a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court.

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, said Altobelli’s brother, Tony, sports information director at the school.

Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley tweeted that the dead also included Christina Mauser, a girls basketball coach at a nearby elementary school. Her husband, Matt Mauser, said in a Facebook post: “My kids and I are devastated. We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash.”

Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and John Antczak in Los Angeles, David Koenig in Dallas, Tim Reynolds in Miami and Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania contributed to this report.


About the Authors: