On Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board said that in his last communication with air traffic control, the pilot of the helicopter said he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer. When air traffic control asked him what he planned to do, there was no response, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy told reporters.
Visibility was extremely low Sunday morning — so low, the Los Angeles Police Department decided to grounds its helicopters, department spokesman Josh Rubenstein said.
Bryant, 41, and his daughter, Gianna, 13, were heading to a basketball game in Thousand Oaks, where he was expected to coach and she was expected to play. Hours earlier, they had attended early morning mass together in Newport Beach, CNN affiliate KABC reported. With them on the helicopter were two of Gianna’s teammates with their parents and an assistant girls basketball coach. The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was also killed.
Helicopter was flying with special permission
Homendy said investigators believe the helicopter was flying under visual flight rules from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to just southeast of Burbank Airport.
Around Burbank, the pilot requested to fly under special permission, Homendy said. An SVFR clearance allows a pilot to fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for regular visual flight rules (VFR).
Pilots can request the clearance before takeoff or during the flight if weather conditions suddenly change, CNN transportation analyst Peter Goelz said. SVFR clearance is “pretty normal,” Goelz said, but “it’s not something that’s often recommended.”
The helicopter circled for 12 minutes until air traffic control approved SVFR clearance, Homendy said.
When the pilot flew into the Burbank and Van Nuys airspace at 1,400 feet, heading south and then west, he requested radar assistance to avoid traffic, Homendy said. But air traffic control said the helicopter was too low to provide that assistance.
Zobayan said he was going to climb higher and air traffic controllers responded, but they never heard back. Radar data indicated the helicopter climbed 2,300 feet and began a left descending turn, she said.
The last radar contact was around 9:45 a.m Sunday, Homendy said.
Pilot had thousands of hours of flight time
Zobayan, who was manning the helicopter, was experienced and had 8,200 hours of flight time as of July 2019, Homendy said.
He had been working with Island Express Helicopters — which owned and operated the Sikorsky S-76B — for a number of years, she said.
NTSB investigators are looking at pilot records, weather information, ATC communications and the wreckage as part of the investigation.
In a written statement posted to its website Island Express said, “We are working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the cause of the accident and we are grateful to the first responders and local authorities for their response to this unimaginable accident.”
The chopper is reliable, safe and capable, aviation analyst Miles O’Brien told CNN.
“It’s a workhorse,” O’Brien said. “It’s the flying Lincoln Town Car for executives. This is what corporate helicopter aviation is built on — on this Sikorsky.
Helicopter broke into pieces at impact
The impact of the crash broke the helicopter into pieces, creating a debris field of about 500 to 600 feet, Homendy said. The crash created a crater at about 1,085 feet above sea level, she said.
“There is (an) impact area on one of the hills and a piece of the tail is down the hill, on the left side of the hill,” she said. “The fuselage is over on the other side of that hill, and then the main rotor is about 100 yards beyond that.”
When reporters asked her if there was any chance of survival, Homendy said, “It was a pretty devastating accident scene.”
Investigators initially struggled to access the site of the wreckage as it’s surrounded by difficult terrain, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Sunday. Eventually, authorities bulldozed the road to get a car to the location.
And their job wasn’t made easier by mourners who descended near the site and in residential areas around it.
An emergency ordinance was issued, making it a misdemeanor to unlawfully access the site, Villanueva said Monday. Deputies are patrolling the rugged terrain on horseback, he said.
Three young girls were on board
Among the victims were three teenage girls on their way to a basketball game.
Alyssa Altobelli, who was Gianna’s teammate, was on the helicopter with her father, Orange Coast College (OCC) baseball coach John Altobelli and her mother, Keri Altobelli.
Her father would routinely travel with her to attend her games, OCC assistant coach Ron La Ruffa said.
Payton Chester and her mother, Sarah Chester, were also passengers on the helicopter and killed in the crash, Payton’s grandmother, Cathy Chester, wrote on Facebook. She said they were on their way to the same basketball game.
“While the world mourns the loss of a dynamic athlete and humanitarian, I mourn the loss of two people just as important…their impact was just as meaningful, their loss will be just as keenly felt, and our hearts are just as broken,” Todd Schmidt, a former principal at the elementary school Payton once attended, wrote in a Facebook post.
Christina Mauser was also killed in the crash. Mauser was an assistant girls basketball coach for a private school in Corona del Mar, California.
“My kids and I are devastated. We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash,” her husband, Matt Mauser, wrote on Facebook.