Coroner’s officials are working to recover victims’ remains from the hillside outside Los Angeles where a helicopter carrying former NBA star Kobe Bryant and eight others crashed in a wreck that aviation experts said may have been caused by the pilot becoming disoriented in the fog.
While the cause of the tragedy is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, 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.
Bryant’s Sikorsky S-76 went down on Sunday morning, killing the retired athlete along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and everyone else aboard and scattering debris over an area the size of a football field.
Crews recovered three bodies on Sunday and resumed the search on Monday amid an outpouring of grief and shock over the loss of the basketball great who helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA titles during his dazzling 20-year career.
The pilot, whose name has not been released, had asked for and received special clearance to fly in heavy fog just minutes before the crash. Several aviation experts said it is not uncommon for helicopter pilots to be given such permission, though some thought it unusual that it would be granted in airspace as busy as that over Los Angeles.
But Kurt Deetz, who flew for Bryant dozens of times in the same chopper that went down, said permission is often granted in the area.
“It happened all the time in the winter months in LA,” Deetz said. “You get fog.”
The helicopter left Santa Ana in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, shortly after 9 a.m., heading north and then west. Bryant was believed to be headed for his youth sports academy in nearby Thousand Oaks, which was holding a basketball tournament Sunday in which Bryant’s daughter, known as Gigi, was competing.
Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank to the north and Van Nuys to the northwest. At one point, the controllers instructed the chopper to circle because of other planes in area before proceeding.
The aircraft crashed in Calabasas, about 48 kilometres northwest of downtown Los Angeles, around 9:45 a.m. at about 426 metres, according to data from Flightradar24. When it struck the ground, it was flying at about 296 km/h and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the data showed.
Bryant had been known since his playing days for taking helicopters instead of braving the notoriously snarled Los Angeles traffic. “I’m not going into LA without the Mamba chopper,” he joked on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” in a 2018 interview, referring to his own nickname, Black Mamba.
Randy Waldman, a helicopter flight instructor who teaches at the nearby Van Nuys airport, said its likely the pilot got disoriented in the fog and the helicopter went into a fatal dive.
“It’s a common thing that happens in airplanes and helicopters with people flying with poor visibility,” Waldman 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, and it happens all the time, and it’s really a shame.”
Waldman said it was the same thing that happened to John F Kennedy Jr. when his plane dropped out of the sky near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in 1999.
“A lot of times somebody who’s doing it for a living is pressured to get their client to where they have to go,” Waldman said. “They take chances that maybe they shouldn’t take.”
© AP 2020