The federal investigation of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others began to unfold Monday as experts examined the chopper’s maintenance history and questioned why the pilot flew in foggy conditions.
Visibility was so poor Sunday morning that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Los Angeles Police departments had grounded their choppers.
An air traffic controller told the pilot of the helicopter with Bryant aboard shortly before the crash that he was flying below the level needed to be able to lend assistance with tracking, although there was no acknowledgment. The pilot was flying under flight rules that allowed him to navigate visually in conditions that were less than what would be the normal minimum, the recordings indicate. There was no mayday call.
“It seemed like very routine communication,” said Gary Robb, an attorney in Kansas City, Missouri, who specializes in helicopter litigation.
Yet when Bryant’s helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. PST, visibility on the ground was about 3 or 4 miles, and the lowest overcast cloud layer was only 1,000 to 1,500 feet above ground, according to weather.com meteorologist Brian Donegan.
Investigators will review flight records and collect data from the helicopter’s operator to help determine why it slammed into a hillside near Malibu, National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said.The NTSB planned to hold a news conference later Monday.
Gathering evidence and recovering the bodies will be difficult. The chopper crashed in rugged terrain, and roads to access the site have been flooded with onlookers, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Recovery and identification of the nine victims is expected to be completed over the next few days, said Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner Jonathan Lucas. Bryant was on the helicopter with his daughter, Gianna; John Altobelli, head baseball coach at Orange Coast College; and his wife and daughter, Keri and Alyssa.
Girls basketball coach Christina Mauser was also among the victims, said Katrina Foley, mayor of Costa Mesa, California. Mauser was an assistant coach to Bryant in youth basketball.
Also killed was the pilot, Ara Zobayan. Federal Aviation Administration records Zobayan was licensed as a commercial pilot rated to fly helicopters on both normal and instrument flights. He was also licensed as a helicopter flight instructor for normal and instrument flights, as well as a ground instructor for instrument flying.
The wreckage of the Sikorsky S-76B covered 100 yards and emitted smoke for hours on Sunday.
Searching for a flight data collection device in the charred wreckage is one of the next steps, said Dan Deutermann, a consultant for aviation risk management company The Squadron.
Frequent flyer:Traveling by helicopter was common for Kobe Bryant
Low visibility at the time of the crash could call into question the validity of witness interviews, Deutermann added.
“They’re going to look at pilot records and see if they can piece together any witness statements, which witnesses are so-so on a foggy day,” Deutermann said.
Helicopter was for ‘VIP transport’
The helicopter was manufactured in 1991, Federal Aviation Administration records show. Since 2015, it has been owned by Island Express Holding Corp., based in Van Nuys, California, according to records by PriJet, a Massachusetts company that tracks the costs for private jets and other aircraft.
From 2007 to 2015, the copter was part of the air fleet for the Illinois state government, the PriJet records show.
Former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner offered the state’s aircraft for sale in 2015 as a cost-saving measure, Chicago-based WGN TV reported. During the time the state owned the copter, it was used for “VIP transport” for the governor and other others, the report said. Rauner announced that the state received $2.5 million in all for the sale of five aircraft in 2015, the report said.
The FAA records show the copter’s current certificate under Island Express Holding Corp. was issued in September 2015. It has made similar runs from Orange to Ventura counties twice in the past two weeks, according to FlightAware.
Sikorsky has ‘good’ safety record
The helicopter model carrying Bryant and eight others has a good safety record, said Shawn Coyle, an experienced helicopter pilot and expert witness on accidents.
NTSB final reports list eight accidents that involved Sikorsky S-76B copters, including two that resulted in a combined 12 fatalities. Those fatal accidents didn’t appear to involve mechanical problems but rather visibility.
Four people died in a June 1986 flight in Sutton, Massachusetts, the reports show. The S-76B had been flying at 6,000 feet, then went into a steep, high-speed descent. The NTSB could not pinpoint a cause, but the report cited fog and a low cloud ceiling as contributing factors.
In the second fatal crash, eight people, including a pilot, died in July 2001 when an S-76B copter plunged into the waters between South Korea and Japan. The copter, operated by Dae-Woo Shipbuilding, sank after impact. Witnesses reported that the pilot descended because visibility had deteriorated amid a lower cloud ceiling during the flight, the report said.
“With an aircraft like that, that’s capable of flying on airways, why they would be flying in bad weather’s got to be in question,” Coyle said. “It’s capable of flying on the same airways that an airliner flies on, obviously at lower altitude.”
The NTSB will likely release a preliminary report within about 10 days. It may take a year or more for the board to announce the cause of the crash.
Contributing: Nathan Bomey, John Bacon and Kristin Lam; the Associated Press