The helicopter carrying retired basketball star Kobe Bryant and eight others had been cleared to operate in deteriorating weather but not the dense clouds into which it apparently flew shortly before crashing, according to investigators and flight data.
The Sikorsky S-76B was flying under air-traffic rules mandating that the pilot maintain visibility with surroundings, but in the final minute before the crash it almost certainly climbed into the fog layer above, the helicopter’s flight track and local weather reports show.
There’s no indication that the pilot sought approval from the Federal Aviation Administration controller, according to a recording of radio calls posted on the LiveATC.net website. While the pilot was rated to fly on instruments in the clouds, he was supposed to have obtained permission under U.S. rules.
The pilot radioed a request to climb to “avoid a cloud layer,” Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a briefing Monday afternoon. The controller asked the pilot what he wanted to do and there was no reply, Homendy said.
The helicopter wasn’t equipped with crash-proof recorders and there was no requirement for them, she said. Investigators are attempting to gain access to a tablet computer and other electronics for clues.
The NTSB is asking people who were near the crash to provide any photos they may have taken showing weather at the time, Homendy added.
It’s still unclear what caused the crash Sunday morning in the hills of Calabasas, California, near Los Angeles that killed everyone aboard, but preliminary reports indicate the pilot was confused or was reacting to some unusual condition as the aircraft climbed and turned away from its route, according to aviation safety experts.
“It would suggest either intentionally not complying with the FAA rules regarding visual flight or inadvertent entry into these hazardous conditions,” said Jeffrey Guzzetti, former chief of accident investigations at the FAA.
The pilot, identified as Ara Zobayan, had been flying under what are known as “special” visual rules, which allow for flying in deteriorating weather but that still required him to stay clear of clouds and low visibility.
Normally, helicopters flying in visual conditions must be able to see for three miles and clouds can’t be less than 1,000 feet from the ground.
If pilots flying under visual rules choose to fly into clouds, FAA rules require that they radio a controller for permission. The pilot’s notification that he was climbing wasn’t the same as receiving permission to fly in the clouds.
The helicopter’s sharp turn and sudden descent in the final seconds are consistent with other crashes in which pilots became disoriented in clouds, Guzzetti said. The NTSB, where Guzzetti also worked, has investigated numerous cases in which helicopters crashed after entering fog or dense clouds.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and the others were killed when the sophisticated helicopter slammed into the side of a brush-covered hillside and a fire erupted.
The chopper had been flying at an altitude of about 1,100 to 1,200 feet, which was roughly the same level as the clouds, according to what a controller told the pilot moments earlier on a recording made public by LiveATC.net.
At one point before the crash, the pilot radioed to request “flight following,” which allows a pilot to be monitored more closely by controllers while still flying under visual rules. The controller replied that it wasn’t possible because the helicopter was too low.
At 9:44 a.m., the helicopter began to climb, reaching as high as 2,300 feet, according to Homendy.
While investigators will have to formally determine the precise weather conditions, it appears highly likely that the chopper was in the clouds at that time, Guzzetti said.
After climbing, the craft turned to the left and began a rapid descent, according to Homendy and data supplied by flight tracking company Flightradar24.
There’s no indication the pilot radioed a distress call.
Plunging at such a high rate “is a real cause for concern,” said Shawn Coyle, a former military pilot who’s written books on helicopter safety.
It’s possible that the pilot was disoriented, but the descent also could have been caused by several other things, from the pilot becoming incapacitated to a catastrophic mechanical problem, Coyle said.
While some smaller helicopters can be difficult to fly in clouds, the S-76B is equipped with stabilizers and an autopilot that should make it routine to operate in such conditions, Coyle said.
Zobayan is listed in FAA records as being qualified to fly with instruments while in clouds that obscure the ground.
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