Shortly before the fatal helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others in Southern California on Sunday, the pilot told air traffic controllers he was climbing in altitude to avoid a cloud layer. That was the helicopter’s final transmission; minutes later, it crashed into a hillside, killing all on board.
National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy detailed the communication between pilot Ara Zobayan and air traffic controllers in a press conference late Monday laying out the investigation into the cause.
When the private Sikorsky S-76B helicopter left Orange County bound for a girls basketball game 70 miles away in Thousand Oaks, it was operating under normal visual flight rules, indicating conditions were fine. Near Burbank, however, Zobayan requested to transit controlled airspace under special visual flight rules (SVFR); one Calabasas man described the fog at the time to the New York Times “as thick as swimming in a pool of milk.”
After a delay due to other air traffic, the control tower told Zobayan to proceed. “Follow the 5 freeway, maintain special VFR at or below 2500, follow [Interstate] 5 northbound,” the tower told Zobayan. And the pilot repeated that request back.
Zobayan requested “flight following,” or radar assistance from the air control tower. The tower, the Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control, responded that the helicopter was too low. “72EX, say intentions,” the tower said, according to audio previously published by LiveATC.net. “You’re still too low level for flight following at this time.”
“Approximately four minutes later, the pilot advised they were climbing to avoid a cloud layer,” Homendy said. (This interaction was previously unheard in released audio.) “When ATC asked what the pilot planned to do, there was no reply. Radar data indicates the helicopter climbed 2,300 ft. and began a left descending turn.”
“Last radar contact was 9:45 a.m. and is consistent with the accident location,” Homendy said.
Homendy described the accident scene as “pretty devastating,” and the debris field as ranging between 500 and 600 feet. The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner said Monday that the office had recovered three bodies from the wreckage on Sunday before recovery efforts were suspended due to darkness.
There was no black box on the helicopter, as Homendy explained it wasn’t required, although investigators did recover an iPad including the ForeFlight app, which is used to assist pilots with things like flight plans and weather briefings. “We’ll be looking at other avionics on the aircraft, and we’ll be looking for other electronics,” Homendy said.
Homendy said that investigators will spend approximately five days on the scene collecting “perishable” evidence, and later make a determination on the cause of the crash. Groups involved in the investigation included the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Administration, helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky, aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Canada, helicopter operator Island Express, and the National Air Traffic Controllers’ Association.
The FBI is also assisting in the collection of evidence. Homendy clarified there was no criminal aspect of the investigation thus far.
As the investigation continues, so does the emotional reaction to the shocking death of the former NBA star, who played 20 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers. A scheduled game between the Lakers and hometown rival Los Angeles Clippers for Tuesday has been postponed, and on Monday night, Lakers star LeBron James—a friend who passed Bryant on the league’s all-time leading scorer list the night before Bryant’s death—posted a tribute on Instagram.
“Man I love you big bro,” James wrote.. “My heart goes to Vanessa and the kids. I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man!”
Cover: FILE – In this July 26, 2018 file photo former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, file)