In his final transmission, the pilot of a helicopter that crashed, killing nine people including NBA legend Kobe Bryant, told air traffic control he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer, the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday.
When air traffic control asked the pilot what he planned to do, there was no reply, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy told reporters. The last radar contact was around 9:45 a.m. (12:45 p.m. ET) Sunday, she said.
Radar data indicated the helicopter climbed 2,300 feet and began a left descending turn, she said.
The NTSB, which is investigating the cause of the crash, detailed the helicopter’s final moments before it crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California, under foggy conditions. Visibility was so low Sunday morning that the Los Angeles Police Department grounded its helicopters, department spokesman Josh Rubenstein said.
The crash impact broke the helicopter into pieces, creating a debris field stretching about 500 to 600 feet, according to Homendy.
“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 asked about any chance for survival, Homendy said: “It was a pretty devastating accident scene.”
Bryant, 41, and the other passengers were headed to Thousand Oaks for a basketball game, where Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was expected to play and Bryant was expected to coach. Gianna and two teammates were among the victims.
The pilot’s final correspondence
Homendy said initial information indicates 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 visual flight rules, 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 SVFR clearance before takeoff or during the flight, especially if conditions suddenly change, CNN transportation analyst Peter Goelz said.
While SVFR clearance is “pretty normal,” he said, “it’s not something that’s often recommended.”
If granted SVFR clearance, the pilot will typically keep tighter communication with air traffic control.
During the pilot’s conversation with air traffic control, they advised the pilot there was a delay due to traffic, Homendy said.
She said the helicopter circled for 12 minutes until air traffic control approved the special visual flight rules.
Homendy said the helicopter flew in the Burbank and Van Nuys airspace at 1,400 feet, heading south and then west.
The pilot requested flight following, which is radar assistance for a flight that helps the pilot avoid traffic, to continue to Camarillo, she said, But air traffic control said the helicopter was too low to provide flight following assistance, she said.
About four minutes later, the pilot said he was climbing to avoid the cloud layer, she said.
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Homendy said the crash created a crater at 1,085 feet above sea level.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said there has been a lot of interest from the public trying to get to the crash site. An emergency ordinance was issued, making it a misdemeanor to unlawfully access the site, the sheriff said.
Deputies are patrolling the rugged terrain on horseback, Villanueva said. The terrain is so difficult to access that authorities bulldozed the road to get a car to the location.
NBA postpones Lakers game after crash
A day after the crash, the National Basketball Association said Tuesday night’s Los Angeles Lakers game versus the Los Angeles Clippers would be postponed. The decision “was made out of respect for the Lakers organization,” which is mourning the deaths of the nine victims, the league said.
The game was scheduled to take place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and will be rescheduled, the league said.
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office said Monday a team of investigators recovered three bodies Sunday night, before darkness and safety concerns suspended the search. It’s unclear which victims have been recovered.
Children and parents were on board
Bryant and Gianna were joined on the flight by Orange Coast College (OCC) baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri and his daughter Alyssa, Altobelli’s brother told CNN.
Alyssa was Gianna’s teammate, OCC assistant coach Ron La Ruffa said. And Altobelli would routinely travel with his daughter for her basketball games.