LOS ANGELES – The pilot of the helicopter that crashed and killed all nine people aboard, including Kobe Bryant, radioed that he was climbing to 2,300 feet to avoid a cloud layer, then descended in a left turn before slamming into a mountainside, federal investigators said Monday.
The copter smashed into rugged terrain in Calabasas, California, with such force that it left a crater and hurtled the fuselage down the other side of the hill, the National Transportation Safety Board said in giving a preliminary look at the inquiry into the accident in foggy conditions.
Visibility was so poor Sunday morning that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's and Los Angeles Police departments had grounded their choppers. Asked whether fog might be the cause, NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said only that "that's part of our investigation."
An air traffic controller told the pilot shortly before the crash that he was flying below the level needed to be able to lend assistance with tracking, the NTSB said. The pilot was flying under flight rules that allowed him to navigate visually in conditions that were less than what would be the normal minimum, the recordings indicate. There was no mayday call.
"It seemed like very routine communication," said Gary Robb, an attorney in Kansas City, Missouri, who specializes in helicopter litigation.
Yet when Bryant's helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. PST, visibility on the ground was about 3 or 4 miles, and the lowest overcast cloud layer was only 1,000 to 1,500 feet above ground, according to weather.com meteorologist Brian Donegan.
Investigators will review flight records and collect data from the helicopter's operator to help determine why it slammed into the hillside near Malibu, Homendy said.
Gathering evidence and recovering the bodies will be difficult. The chopper crashed in rugged terrain, and roads to access the site have been flooded with onlookers, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Recovery and identification of the nine victims was expected to be completed over the next few days, said Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner Jonathan Lucas. Bryant was on the helicopter with his daughter, Gianna; John Altobelli, head baseball coach at Orange Coast College; and his wife and daughter, Keri and Alyssa.
Girls basketball coach Christina Mauser was also among the victims, said Katrina Foley, mayor of Costa Mesa, California. Mauser was an assistant coach to Bryant in youth basketball.
The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was licensed commercially to fly helicopters on both visual and instrument flights, Federal Aviation Administration records show. He had 8,200 hours of flight time as of July. He was also licensed as a helicopter flight instructor for normal and instrument flights, as well as a ground instructor for instrument flying.
The wreckage of the Sikorsky S-76B covered 100 yards and burned for hours on Sunday. Homendy said the helicopter carried no flight data recorder.
The helicopter is considered a top-of-the-line craft for corporate travel. President Donald Trump's companies have owned them, government records show.
Frequent flyer: Traveling by helicopter was common for Kobe Bryant
Helicopter was for 'VIP transport'
The helicopter ferrying Bryant was manufactured in 1991, Federal Aviation Administration records show. Since 2015, it has been owned by Island Express Holding Corp., based in Van Nuys, California, according to records by PriJet, a Massachusetts company that tracks the costs for private jets and other aircraft.
From 2007 to 2015, the copter was part of the air fleet for the Illinois state government, the PriJet records show.
Former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner offered the state’s aircraft for sale in 2015 as a cost-saving measure, Chicago-based WGN TV reported. During the time the state owned the copter, it was used for “VIP transport” for the governor and others, the report said. Rauner announced that the state received $2.5 million in all for the sale of five aircraft in 2015, the report said.
The FAA records show the copter’s current certificate under Island Express Holding Corp. was issued in September 2015. It has made similar runs from Orange to Ventura counties twice in the past two weeks, according to FlightAware.
Sikorsky has 'good' safety record
The helicopter model carrying Bryant and eight others has a good safety record, said Shawn Coyle, an experienced helicopter pilot and expert witness on accidents.
NTSB final reports list eight accidents that involved Sikorsky S-76B copters, including two that resulted in a combined 12 fatalities. Those fatal accidents didn't appear to involve mechanical problems but rather visibility.
Four people died in a June 1986 flight in Sutton, Massachusetts, the reports show. The S-76B had been flying at 6,000 feet, then went into a steep, high-speed descent. The NTSB could not pinpoint a cause, but the report cited fog and a low cloud ceiling as contributing factors.
In the second fatal crash, eight people, including a pilot, died in July 2001 when an S-76B copter plunged into the waters between South Korea and Japan. The copter, operated by Dae-Woo Shipbuilding, sank after impact. Witnesses reported that the pilot descended because visibility had deteriorated amid a lower cloud ceiling during the flight, the report said.
“With an aircraft like that, that’s capable of flying on airways, why they would be flying in bad weather’s got to be in question," Coyle said. "It’s capable of flying on the same airways that an airliner flies on, obviously at lower altitude."
The NTSB will likely release a preliminary report within about 10 days. It may take a year or more for the board to announce the cause of the crash.
Zoey Tur, a former news chopper pilot in Los Angeles with more than 10,000 hours of flying time, said the flight path data looks to her like the pilot became lost and might have been going too fast given the conditions. He could have lost sight of the freeways he was following.
Heading northwest from Los Angeles into the hills, "the terrain is rising, the fog is lower. It's like flying up a blind canyon," Tur said.
Contributing: Nathan Bomey, John Bacon and Kristin Lam; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant crash investigation: Helicopter was flying low in fog