Kobe helicopter tried to climb to avoid clouds before crash

CALABASAS, CALIFORNIA (AP) — 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 over 305 metres into a hillside, an accident investigator said.

Radar indicated the helicopter reached a height of 701 metres last Sunday morning before descending, and the wreckage was found at 331 metres, Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said during a news conference on 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 91 metres beyond that.”

Investigators at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in Calabasas, California. PHOTO: AP

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.”

The pilot had asked for and received special clearance to fly in heavy fog just minutes before the crash and was flying at 427 metres when he went south and then west, Homendy said.

The pilot then asked for air traffic controllers to provide “flight following” radar assistance but was told the craft was too low for that assistance, Homendy said.

About four minutes later, “the pilot advised they were climbing to avoid a cloud layer,” she said. “When ATC asked what the pilot planned to do, there was no reply. Radar data indicates the helicopter climbed to 701 metres and then began a left descending turn. Last radar contact was around 9.45am.”

Two minutes later, someone on the ground called 911 to report the crash.

Randy Waldman, a helicopter flight instructor who teaches at the nearby Van Nuys airport, said a disoriented pilot might have only moments to avoid a fatal dive.

“If you’re flying visually, if you get caught in a situation where you can’t see out the windshield, the life expectancy of the pilot and the aircraft is maybe 10, 15 seconds, and it happens all the time, and it’s really a shame,” Waldman said.

Some experts raised questions of whether the helicopter should have even been flying. The weather was so foggy that the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff’s department had grounded their own choppers.