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Kobe Bryant helicopter was almost out of blinding clouds, investigators say

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The pilot of the helicopter that crashed and killed Kobe Bryant and eight others was almost out of blinding clouds when he suddenly plunged and crashed into a Southern California hillside, investigators and aviation experts indicated.

Ara Zobayan had told air traffic control he was climbing to 1,219 meters and he rose to 701 meters, according to an investigative update released Friday from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The helicopter was just 30 meters from the cloud tops and conceivably would have broken through into clear air in a matter of seconds. Air traffic controllers had advised Zobayan that the cloud tops were at 731.5 meters. Camera footage later reviewed by the NTSB showed nearby clouds at that estimated height.

The NTSB update didn’t make any conclusion about what caused the Jan. 26 crash in Calabasas, northwest of Los Angeles, because the investigation remains underway and a final report isn’t expected for a year or so. However, the update did say there was no sign of mechanical failure based on wreckage examined by experts at the scene.

Investigators also believe that since a tree branch at the crash site was cut, the twin engines were working and the rotors turning at the time of impact. All four of the helicopter’s blades had similar damage, the update stated.

An unidentified witness told the NTSB the hillside where the crash occurred was shrouded in mist when he heard the helicopter approaching. It sounded normal and he then saw the blue-and-white aircraft emerge from the fog moving forward and down. It started to roll to the left, and he caught a glimpse of the aircraft’s belly. Within 2 seconds, it slammed into the hillside just below him.

Veteran pilots have suggested that Zobayan became disoriented in the thick atmosphere.

The pilot’s last maneuvers suggest he tried to pop up above the clouds, and he did ascend for perhaps a minute before turning left, said Mike Sagely, a helicopter pilot in the Los Angeles area with 35 years of flying experience.

When pilots inadvertently enter clouds and try to turn instead of still ascending, “probably in the neighborhood of 80 to 90 percent of the time, it’s catastrophic,” Sagely said.

“When he went into the clouds, he had a full-on emergency,” Sagely said.

The helicopter was descending at 1,219 meters per minute and slammed into the hillside at more than 290 kph.

Air safety consultant Kipp Lau said the speed of the aircraft’s descent indicated “you’ve certainly lost control of the aircraft.”

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