The pilot of the doomed helicopter carrying NBA legend Kobe Bryant was battling thick cloud at the time of the fatal crash, with visibility so poor that police choppers had been grounded.
National Transportation Safety Board official Jennifer Homendy told reporters on Monday that flying conditions were far from ideal when the private aircraft went down in southern California at around 9.45am on Sunday.
She said authorities were still examining evidence from the “devastating accident scene”, with emergency workers having recovered three bodies from the crash site so far.
Image: Bryant pictured with his daughter Gianna in Las Vegas in July last year
Image: Emergency workers have been seen removing bodies from the crash site
Ms Homendy held the press briefing in Los Angeles hours after a police spokesman told the LA Times that the conditions failed to meet “our minimum standards for flying”.
Both the Los Angeles Police Department and county sheriff’s department had grounded their own choppers, and the aircraft carrying Bryant and his teenage daughter Gianna received a safety warning moments before it crashed.
An audio recording revealed the pilot, identified as Ara Zobayan, was told “you’re too low for flight following at this time” seconds before the helicopter disappeared from radar.
It is understood that the pilot had requested ‘flight following’, which is a US aerospace term for radar monitoring.
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Mr Zobayan has been described as an “experienced pilot” who had 8,200 hours of flight time under his belt, and had been climbing to avoid a cloud layer before the chopper crashed.
Ms Homendy said: “The pilot had a commercial certificate. He was a certified flight instructor. (As of) July 2019, he had 8,200 hours of flight time. It’s an experienced pilot.”
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Before the crash, the chopper had been held up to allow for other aircraft and circled for around 15 minutes until it received clearance from air traffic controllers to continue.
The controllers mentioned poor visibility around the Burbank and Van Nuys areas, but the pilot spoke to controllers normally before communication suddenly went dead near the crash site at Calabasas.
The helicopter – identified by the Federal Aviation Authority as a Sikorsky S-76 – was travelling at 153 knots (176mph) when it crashed, according to tracking site Flightradar24.
Image: People gather near the scene of the crash
Image: Authorities say the helicopter came down in a remote field off Las Virgenes around 10am (local) on Sunday
The S-76 has a strong safety record, mainly attributed to its two engines which power the main rotor and tail rotors.
Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, which makes the helicopter, released a statement saying more than 875 had been delivered globally, with many used for critical missions such as search and rescue and air ambulances.
It said the aircraft had notched up “more than 7.4 million hours of safe, successful flight”.
Ms Homendy confirmed that there was no black box on board, but that one was not required.
Image: Kobe Bryant soars for a dunk
Image: Kobe Bryant was 41
While some bodies have been recovered, LA County sheriff Alex Villanueva has said the difficult terrain of the hillside crash site meant that it would take some time for all of the bodies to be retrieved and officially identified.
He described the terrain as “rugged”, with a “very steep hill”.
There were nine people on board in total – the pilot and eight passengers.
Other passengers besides Bryant and his daughter, 13, included Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa – who played on the same basketball team as Gianna.
The girls’ coach Christina Mauser also died, her husband confirmed.
Image: Kobe Bryant pictured with his five NBA titles
Bryant, 41, often used a helicopter to get to games at the Staples Center – the LA Lakers’ home arena.
He reportedly found it more comfortable than fitting his 6ft 6in frame into a car for several hours.
He also referred to the aircraft as the “Mamba Chopper” after his nickname Black Mamba.
Many of the tributes that have poured in since his death have referenced the moniker, with fellow NBA legends and famous figures from entertainment, sport, politics and beyond having expressed their shock.
Michael Jordan, widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all-time, said in a statement that “words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling” and that Bryant was like a “brother”.
On Monday night, the Empire State Building in New York was lit up purple and gold – the colours of the LA Lakers – to honour Bryant.
Our lights will shine in purple and gold this evening as we pay tribute to basketball legend Kobe Bryant, an inspiration to millions across the globe who was taken too soon. Our hearts go out to all of the families, friends, and fans affected by this tragedy. #824Forever pic.twitter.com/m84TbQ2d3y
— Empire State Building (@EmpireStateBldg) January 27, 2020
Image: Bryant and Jordan facing off in 1997
Image: Bryant was displayed on huge screens outside the Staples Center
Bryant was a five-time NBA championship winner with 18 NBA All-Star selections and two Olympic gold medals.
Following his retirement in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, the Lakers retired the shirt numbers he had worn during his career – eight and 24.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Bryant had “inspired people around the world to pick up a basketball”.
The NBA also announced that the Lakers’ game against the LA Clippers, scheduled for Tuesday, had been postponed “out of respect for the Lakers association” in light of Bryant’s death.
Source : Sky News