HEAT ALERT

Heat advisory continues in New Jersey as highs approach near 100 degrees

Authorities: Pilot of Bryant helicopter tried to avoid heavy fog

The veteran pilot whose helicopter plunged into a Los Angeles-area hillside, killing NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others, had tried to avoid fog so heavy that it had grounded police choppers, authorities said.

News 12 Staff

Jan 29, 2020, 10:10 AM

Updated 1,605 days ago

Share:

CALABASAS, Calif. (AP) - The veteran pilot whose helicopter plunged into a Los Angeles-area hillside, killing NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others, had tried to avoid fog so heavy that it had grounded police choppers, authorities said.
But even experienced pilots may have only seconds to act when they are blinded by weather, an expert said as investigators examined the wreckage for clues to Sunday morning’s crash.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office, meanwhile, said Tuesday that all nine bodies have been recovered, and it is working to identify them.
RELATED: Kobe Bryant left deep legacy in LA sports, basketball world 

While the investigation into the cause of the wreck was just beginning, experts and armchair pilots alike flooded social media and the airwaves with speculation, some of them suggesting that the pilot had become disoriented in the dense fog that had settled along part of the flight path.

The chartered Sikorsky S-76B was a luxury twin-engine aircraft often used by Bryant in traffic-jumping hops around the notoriously congested LA area. It was heading from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Camarillo Airport in Ventura County when it crashed in Calabasas.

The 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and the other passengers were heading to Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy, a youth sports center in Thousand Oaks where Gianna was going to play in a basketball tournament.

Also killed 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 Southern California elementary school.

The Orange Coast baseball team planned a tribute to its coach before its season opener Tuesday afternoon, and the Lakers canceled Tuesday night's game against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was chief pilot for the craft’s owner, Island Express Helicopters. He also was a flight instructor, had more than 8,000 hours of flight time and had flown Bryant and other celebrities several times before, including Kylie Jenner.

Randy Waldman, a helicopter flight instructor who lives in Los Angeles, said the radar tracking data he has seen leads him to believe the pilot got confused in the fog and went into a fatal dive.

“Once you get disoriented your body senses completely tell you the wrong thing. You have no idea which way is up or down,” he said. “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.”

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.

“He could have turned around and gone back to a safer place with better visibility,” Waldman said. However, “a lot of times somebody who’s doing it for a living is pressured to get their client to where they have to go,” he said. “They take chances that maybe they shouldn’t take.”

The helicopter was flying around Burbank, just north of Los Angeles, when the pilot received air traffic control permission to use special visual flight rules, allowing the helicopter to fly in less-than-optimal visibility and weather.

Zobayan was told to follow a freeway and stay at or below 2,500 feet (762 meters), according to radio traffic. The pilot didn’t seem overly concerned, though at one point he asked air traffic controllers to provide “flight following” guidance but was told the helicopter was too low for that radar assistance.

About four minutes later, the pilot said he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer, Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday.

It was his last message to air traffic controllers. The helicopter slammed into a hillside and burst into flames.

Hormendy said investigators would look at everything, from the pilot’s history and actions to the condition of the helicopter.

“We look at man, machine and the environment,” she said. “And weather is just a small portion of that.”

Jerry Kidrick, a retired Army colonel who flew helicopters in Iraq and now teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, said the helicopter's rapid climb and fast descent suggest the pilot was disoriented.

“It’s one of the most dangerous conditions you can be in,” Kidrick said. “Oftentimes, your body is telling you something different than what the instruments are telling you.”

On Monday, NTSB investigators scoured the area to collect evidence, and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies on horseback patrolled the brushy Calabasas hillside. Homendy said the NTSB expected to be on the scene for five days.

“It was a pretty devastating accident scene,” she said of the widespread wreckage. “A piece of the tail is down the hill. The fuselage is on the other side of that hill. And then the main rotor is about 100 yards (91 meters) beyond that.”

Homendy urged people with photographs of weather in the area at the time of the crash to send them to the NTSB.

___

Condon reported from New York and Koenig from Dallas. Associated Press writer Brian Melley also contributed to this story.
(Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


More from News 12
2:05
‘Highway robbery at its finest.’ Commuters frustrated with NJ Transit, Amtrak issues as train delays pile up

‘Highway robbery at its finest.’ Commuters frustrated with NJ Transit, Amtrak issues as train delays pile up

2:21
HEAT ALERT: Feels-like temps in New Jersey approach 100 today; tracking evening pop-up storms

HEAT ALERT: Feels-like temps in New Jersey approach 100 today; tracking evening pop-up storms

0:28
Police: Multiple fights break out at Westwood High School graduation

Police: Multiple fights break out at Westwood High School graduation

1:37
Crowds expected to flock to the Jersey Shore Friday amid sweltering heat wave

Crowds expected to flock to the Jersey Shore Friday amid sweltering heat wave

0:41
Trenton restaurant owner accused of sexually assaulting multiple women

Trenton restaurant owner accused of sexually assaulting multiple women

0:17
Police: Child escapes stolen car in Paterson; suspect sought

Police: Child escapes stolen car in Paterson; suspect sought

0:24
Costco recalls portable charger over fire concerns

Costco recalls portable charger over fire concerns

1:35
Paws & Pals: 2-year-old Prancer now available for adoption

Paws & Pals: 2-year-old Prancer now available for adoption

0:33
Jersey Proud: Livingston crossing guard retires after 30 years

Jersey Proud: Livingston crossing guard retires after 30 years

0:45
Rep. Gottheimer announces federal security action ahead of 2026 FIFA World Cup

Rep. Gottheimer announces federal security action ahead of 2026 FIFA World Cup

0:58
Grand jury declines to file charges in deadly 2023 police shooting in Fort Lee

Grand jury declines to file charges in deadly 2023 police shooting in Fort Lee

2:42
Heading to the Jersey Shore to escape the heat? Beware of the cold ocean water

Heading to the Jersey Shore to escape the heat? Beware of the cold ocean water

1:24
Brushfire along New Jersey Turnpike in Secaucus snarls traffic, causes NJ Transit delays

Brushfire along New Jersey Turnpike in Secaucus snarls traffic, causes NJ Transit delays

0:53
Boil water advisory issued for parts of Edison following water main break

Boil water advisory issued for parts of Edison following water main break

2:59
Summer fun! News 12’s Dave Curren visits State Fair Meadowlands

Summer fun! News 12’s Dave Curren visits State Fair Meadowlands

2:06
‘Operation After Dark’ nets 78 arrests, thousands in fines in illegal club crackdown in Paterson

‘Operation After Dark’ nets 78 arrests, thousands in fines in illegal club crackdown in Paterson

1:43
Best Beaches: Checking out the ocean beaches at Brick Township

Best Beaches: Checking out the ocean beaches at Brick Township

2:00
Climbing to new heights at Iron Peak Sports & Events in Hillsborough

Climbing to new heights at Iron Peak Sports & Events in Hillsborough

1:28
George Norcross' longtime lawyer called to step down from Rutgers Board of Governors

George Norcross' longtime lawyer called to step down from Rutgers Board of Governors

0:20
Historic Battleship New Jersey returns to Camden waterfront following weeks of repairs

Historic Battleship New Jersey returns to Camden waterfront following weeks of repairs