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Kobe Bryant crash: Feds probing chopper maintenance records, pilot history, fog

Hannah Fry, Richard Winton, Luke Money, Ruben Vives and Matthew Ormseth, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Federal investigators on Monday began working to unravel the mystery of why a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people slammed into the side of a hill in Calabasas.

Authorities said the investigation is now wide-ranging, including looking at the histories of the pilot, helicopter maintenance records and the foggy conditions, which pilots have said add a level of danger.

Firefighters responding to a 911 call at 9:47 a.m. PST Sunday found a debris field in steep terrain with a quarter-acre brush fire. Paramedics arriving by helicopter searched the area but found no survivors.

Bryant, who lived in Newport Beach and Los Angeles, was known to keep a chartered helicopter at Orange County's John Wayne Airport.

A Sikorsky S-76 chopper, built in 1991, departed John Wayne at 9:06 a.m. Sunday, according to publicly available flight records. The chopper passed over Boyle Heights, near Dodger Stadium, and circled over Glendale during the flight. The National Transportation Safety Board database shows no prior incidents or accidents for the midsize helicopter.

Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Island Express Helicopters, told the Los Angeles Times he flew Bryant from 2014 to 2016. Nine times out of 10, he said, Bryant flew in "Two Echo X-ray" -- the Sikorsky S-76B, tail No. N72EX, that went down Sunday morning. Bryant favored the model, which is preferred by celebrities for its comfortable interior and solid safety record, Deetz said.

 

When Bryant retired from the NBA in 2016, he flew out of downtown Los Angeles in the same helicopter, wrapped in a gray-and-black paint scheme with his Mamba emblem on the side, Deetz said.

Deetz suspects the crash was most likely caused by bad weather rather than engine or mechanical issues. "The likelihood of a catastrophic twin-engine failure on that aircraft -- it just doesn't happen," he said.

Parts of Southern California were enveloped in thick fog as the helicopter made its way from Orange County to Los Angeles. During the flight, the pilot noted he was flying under "special visual flight rules," which allows a pilot to fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for standard visual flight rules, according to radio communications between the air tower and the aircraft. At some point during the flight, the pilot apparently requested "flight following," a process in which controllers are in regular contact with an aircraft and can help them navigate.

The tower is heard telling the pilot the chopper is too low for flight following before the conversation ends. There did not appear to be a distress call.

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