An air traffic controller told the pilot of a helicopter carrying US basketball star Kobe Bryant he was flying “too low” to be picked up by radar before the chopper crashed, killing everyone on board.
- A spokesman said the Los Angeles Police Department had grounded its helicopters due to the foggy weather
- Publicly released audio of air traffic control conversations revealed the helicopter pilot was told he was flying too low
- Witnesses described hearing a “sputtering” engine before the sound of the crash
A 40-second audio clip of the communications between the helicopter and air traffic control was released publicly as 20 investigators worked on a rugged hillside outside Los Angeles to collect evidence from the scene, where nine people were killed in a wreck that left debris scattered over an area the size of a football field.
The pilot spoke with control towers at Burbank and Van Nuys for a short period, before switching over to the Socal Approach network.
Socal Approach advised the helicopter pilot that he did not have enough altitude to be picked up by the Flight Following system, but he did not respond and radar contact was lost.
“Helicopter 72EX, you’re still too low level for Flight Following at this time,” the air traffic controller said.
The Flight Following system lets pilots inform air traffic controllers of their location and intentions so their aircraft can be monitored on radar and steered away from other aircraft.
The audio indicated the pilot tried to remain below clouds in order to remain in visual contact with the ground and avoid flying on instruments, said aviation lawyer Gary Robb.
Mr Robb said it was “certainly possible” that the pilot was “flying so low to get under the cloud cover that he clipped the top of that mountain that extended into the clouds.”
“The dialogue between the pilot and air traffic control leads me to believe … he kept wanting to go lower and lower, beneath the fog and ceiling, as we call it, and that could have led him to fly so low that he flew into the mountain,” he said.
The pilot, in his transmissions, “was calm and controlled the whole time,” Mr Robb added, calling the communications “extremely normal and routine.”
Permission granted to fly despite foggy weather
The Sikorsky S-76 went down in Calabasas, about 48 kilometres north-west of downtown Los Angeles on Sunday morning (local time).
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a “go team” to the site, which spokesman Keith Holloway said would prioritise collecting “as much perishable evidence as possible”.
Mr Holloway said the investigation would consider weather data, radar information, air traffic control communications, maintenance logs and the pilot’s record.
The Los Angeles County medical examiner, 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.
Bryant’s helicopter left Santa Ana in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, shortly after 9:00am, heading north and then west.
Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank to the north and Van Nuys to the north-west.
The aircraft crashed into the hillside about 9:45am at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24.
When it struck the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 160 knots and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the data showed.
The helicopter had received approval to fly even though weather conditions were worse than usual standards for flying.
Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Josh Rubenstein told the Los Angeles Times that the weather “did not meet our minimum standards for flying” and that police helicopters were grounded.
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.
‘We heard some sputtering and then a boom’
Calabasas residents described foggy conditions in the area where the crash happened.
Colin Storm was in his living room when he heard what sounded to him like a low-flying plane 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 Mr Storm could see smoke rising from the hillside in front of his home.
Witness Jerry Kocharian told the Los Angeles Times the helicopter “didn’t sound right” and was flying very low.
“I saw it falling and spluttering. But it was hard to make out as it was so foggy,” he said.
“The helicopter vanished into a cloud of fog and then there was a boom. There was a big fireball. No-one could survive that.”
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 nearby primary school.
News of the charismatic superstar’s death rocketed around the sports and entertainment worlds.
Seasoned NBA players were left in tears on the sidelines and others paid tribute on the court as scheduled games went ahead, despite the news breaking only 10 minutes before their start.
Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios warmed up for his Australian Open match against Rafael Nadal wearing a Bryant jersey, while the Spanish world number one wore an LA Lakers cap in his post-match press conference after his win.