Ara Zobayan (pictured), 50, was a pilot for the aircraft’s owner, Island Express Helicopters. He had more than 10 years experience and logged more than 8,000 flight hours
Kobe Bryant’s helicopter did not have a terrain warning system that could have told pilot he was plummeting towards the hillside, a National Transportation Safety Board official said Tuesday.
Jennifer Homendy confirmed the aircraft was not equipped with the safety feature. She said the NTSB had recommended that all choppers carrying six or more passengers have the system.
But the Federal Aviation Administration ‘failed to act’ she said and the device was therefore not a legal requirement. The FAA noted the terrain alarm system is compulsory on helicopter air ambulance operations, The LA Times reports.
The Sikorsky S-76 was just 20 to 30 feet below the top of the hillside when it crashed with ‘higher hills surrounding it’. It was also not equipped with a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder.
NTSB investigator Bill English said: ‘The main impact was about 20 to 30 feet from that small hill, but there were other higher hills surrounding it…it’s in a canyon with small hills within it.’
Homendy said Tuesday: ‘So we know that this was a high energy impact crash, and the helicopter was in a descending left bank.’
The doomed flight’s final moments show veteran airman Ara Zobayan likely became disoriented while trying to avoid California’s heavy fog before going into a fatal dive, experts believe.
Security footage taken at nearby homes captured the sound of the low flying helicopter before a loud crash and then silence. One homeowner, Ronna Leavitt, told ABC7 the craft made a U-turn before the impact and her video clip shows a timestamp of 9.45am, as the crash happened.
The cause of the crash could take up to 18 months to determine as wreckage is lifted from Calabasas hillside and evidence is removed but the first crash report is expected in 10 days.
Drone footage released by investigators yesterday shows the extent of the wreckage at the crash site, with debris strewn across the hillside.
Zobayan, 50, was a chief pilot for the aircraft’s owner, Island Express Helicopters. The company said the pilot had more than 10 years of experience.
He also was a flight instructor who had more than 8,000 hours of flight time and had flown Bryant and other celebrities several times before. Zobayan was instrument-rated, which means he was qualified to fly in fog.
But even experienced pilots may have only seconds to act when they are blinded by weather, an expert said as investigators began scouring the wreckage for clues to Sunday morning’s crash.
Randy Waldman, a helicopter flight instructor who lives in Los Angeles, said the radar tracking data he’s seen leads him to believe the pilot got confused in the fog and went into a fatal dive.
The aircraft’s speed ‘means he was completely out of control and in a dive,’ Waldman said.
‘Once you get disoriented your body senses completely tell you the wrong thing. You have no idea which way is up or down,’ he said.
‘If you’re flying visually, if you get caught in a situation where you can’t see out the windshield, the life expectancy of the pilot and the aircraft is maybe 10, 15 seconds,’ Waldman said.
Some experts raised questions of whether the helicopter should have even been flying.
Bryant’s helicopter left Santa Ana in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, shortly after 9am on Sunday, a time when conditions were not suitable for flying, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.
Randy Waldman, a helicopter flight instructor who lives in Los Angeles, said the radar tracking data he’s seen leads him to believe the pilot got confused in the fog and went into a fatal dive. The aircraft’s speed ‘means he was completely out of control and in a dive,’ Waldman said. This graphic shows the latter part of the helicopter’s journey and the changes in altitude and speed ahead of the crash
Investigators were seen working the helicopter crash site on Monday in Calabasas, California
On Tuesday afternoon, authorities said all bodies have been recovered from the crash site (pictured) in Calabasas, California
A piece of the tail section of the helicopter is seen amid the wreckage which crash investigators have been examining
National Transportation Safety Board investigators clamber up the hillside which is strewn with debris from the air disaster
Investigator Carol Hogan examines wreckage at the crash site where Kobe Bryant’s helicopter slammed into a hillside
There was an overcast at 1,300 feet and visibility of about five miles. The pilot was initially flying under VFR, meaning that he was relying on his ability to see the terrain below him.
The weather was so foggy that the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff’s department had grounded their own choppers.
Experts believe the pilot may have become confused in the fog and went into a fatal dive
Sunday’s weather conditions continued to worsen as Ara Zobayan piloted the Sikorsky S-76B that was carrying Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and six other passengers.
It was already a foggy day and the Los Angeles Police Department grounded their choppers due to the conditions.
Zobayan decided to fly under visual flight rules (VFR), which meant he was relying on his eyes to avoid obstacles.
But visibility began to decrease even more as he approached Glendale where he circled for about 15 minutes while waiting for air traffic control clearance. He maintained an altitude of 750ft and speed of 72mph.
Once he was cleared to head over Burbank, Zobayan began to climb and accelerate. He maintained an altitude of 800ft and speed of 148mph.
He continued his climb under special visual flight rules. He maintained an altitude of 1,400ft and speed of 160mph.
As he approached Calabasas, the pilot continued to climb; however he reduced his speed. Experts believe this may have been a point where he attempted to avoid an obstacle. He climbed to an altitude of 2,000ft and slowed to 152mph.
It’s also believed that the pilot may have been going too fast. Even at 120mph, that would’ve only given the pilot 30 seconds to avoid a mountain range, experts say.
Experts have said that the pilot’s high speed could’ve meant that he was ‘completely out of control’ and turned off course. It’s believed that the pilot got confused in the fog and went into a fatal dive at 500 feet in 15 seconds.
The aircraft was on its way to Camarillo Airport in Ventura County and from there Bryant and the passengers were supposed to attend a tournament at the NBA star’s Mamba Sports Academy.
‘He could have turned around and gone back to a safer place with better visibility,’ Waldman said.
However, ‘a lot of times somebody who’s doing it for a living is pressured to get their client to where they have to go,’ Waldman said.
‘They take chances that maybe they shouldn’t take.’
Around 9.20am, the helicopter circled for about 15 minutes just east of Interstate 5, near Glendale. Air traffic controllers held up the helicopter for other aircraft for about 11 minutes, before clearing the Sikorsky S-76 to proceed north along Interstate 5 through Burbank’s airspace.
It was revealed on Monday that Zobayan was given a special clearance to fly under worse than normal weather conditions.
In audio captured by LiveATC.net Zobayan is heard requesting to fly under special visual flight rules (SVFR).
Zobayan was told to follow a freeway and stay at or below 2,500 feet, according to radio traffic.
‘Maintain special VFR at or below 2,500,’ the pilot is heard confirming to the controller at Burbank Airport.
A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official noted a pilot ‘does not get a general, or blanket, clearance from the FAA to fly in these conditions. A pilot is responsible for determining whether it is safe to fly in current and expected conditions’.
Under an SVFR clearance, pilots are allowed to fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for visual flight rules (VFR). Special VFR clearances are only issued when cloud ceilings are below 1,000 feet above ground level.
Flying that low to the ground can be very disorienting and risky, and it’s possible that the pilot became disoriented due to the visibility conditions when the helicopter appeared to veer off its path above US Route 101.
Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank, just to the north, and Van Nuys, to the northwest.
Due to the poor visibility, the pilot could have contacted air traffic controllers and requested to switch to instrument flight rules (IFR), which would have allowed him to navigate through the clouds.
However, when pilots fly under IFR, it can take up a lot of time, especially in Southern California, which has an extremely busy airspace.
Pilots flying under IFR will have to begin 20 miles or more away from the runway and are required to use special instructions in the form of diagrams called approach plates in order to land.
Paul Cline, an assistant professor of aviation at the City University of New York, told New York Magazine that flying under IFR could mean you could be in a holding pattern for ‘an hour’.
‘You’re just one of many waiting in line, and it doesn’t matter if you’re Kobe Bryant,’ Cline added.
‘A ton of rules come into play, and people don’t always want to fly that way [under IFR]. It takes away their ability to do whatever they want to do,’ Cline said. ‘The trade-off is you get to live.’
Bryant, 41, was killed alongside his daughter, Gianna, 13, during the horrific accident on Sunday
Among those killed in the crash were John Altobelli (left), 56, longtime head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team; his wife, Keri (left, with John); and daughter, Alyssa (right), who played on the same basketball team as Bryant’s daughter
Another young player, Payton Chester (left), was also killed in the crash along with her mother Sarah Chester (right)
Christina Mauser (left, with her husband, Matt who was not on the chopper), a girls basketball coach at a nearby private elementary school, also died in the crash
The chartered Sikorsky S-76B was a luxury twin-engine aircraft often used by Bryant in traffic-jumping hops around the LA area’s notoriously congested sprawl
The aircraft continued under special VFR and around 9.40am it turned west to follow US Route 101, the Ventura Highway.
A short time later, the helicopter turned again, toward the southeast, and climbed to more than 2,000 feet, in what appeared to be an attempt to put some space between the helicopter and the high terrain.
In air traffic control audio, the pilot is told by a controller that ‘you’re still too low level’ to be tracked by radar.
This did not appear to be a sign of distress, because the helicopter was actually ascending at the time and the controller was referring to the technical difficulty with reading data rather than warning of an imminent crash.
About four minutes later, ‘the pilot advised they were climbing to avoid a cloud layer,’ Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Monday.
It was his last message to air traffic controllers.
National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said the NTSB expected to be on the scene for five days
The site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others is seen in a screen grab from drone footage
An investigator works at the site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others
Debris is seen as the site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others in a screen grab taken in Calabasas
‘When ATC asked what the pilot planned to do, there was no reply,’ Homendy said.
‘Radar data indicates the helicopter climbed to 2,300 feet and then began a left descending turn.’
Two minutes later, someone on the ground called 911 to report the crash. The helicopter had slammed into a hillside and burst into flames.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN IFR AND VFR FLYING
Under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) pilots must always be able to see things out of their windows, which includes the ground, other aircraft and obstacles.
Pilots flying under VFR must fly on the outside of clouds and are prohibited from flying into clouds.
Flying under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) is extremely more challenging than VFR flying. Unlike VFR, pilots are allowed to fly into clouds where there is zero visibility.
One of the most illustrative differences between the two set of flight rules is the landing procedures.
Under VFR, pilots will fly toward the runway at an angle before executing a rectangular pattern near the runway and heading down for the landing.
Under IFR, pilots will have to begin 20 miles or more away from the runway and are required to use special instructions in the form of diagrams called approach plates.
The approach plates tell pilots where an aircraft will need to change its direction, what altitude it should be flying at, all while having zero visibility.
IFR pilots will usually only be able to see out of their windows toward the end of the instrument approach, which is when they will be able to see the runway.
Details of what followed are still under investigation but there are indications that the helicopter plunged some 1,000 feet.
It was flying at about 184mph and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute when it struck the ground, according to data from Flightradar24.
Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps, said pilots can become disoriented in low visibility, losing track of which direction is up.
Green said a pilot flying an S-76 would be instrument-rated, meaning that person could fly the helicopter without relying on visual cues from outside.
The helicopter’s rapid climb and fast descent suggest the pilot was disoriented, said Jerry Kidrick, a retired Army colonel who flew helicopters in Iraq and now teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.
Disoriented pilots must instantly switch from visual cues to flying the aircraft using only the machine´s instruments, he said.
‘It’s one of the most dangerous conditions you can be in,’ Kidrick said. ‘Oftentimes, your body is telling you something different than what the instruments are telling you.’
The chartered Sikorsky S-76B was a luxury twin-engine aircraft often used by Bryant in traffic-jumping hops around the LA area’s notoriously congested sprawl.
It was heading from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Camarillo Airport in Ventura County when it crashed in Calabasas.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and the other passengers were heading to Bryant´s Mamba Sports Academy, a youth sports center in Thousand Oaks.
The NBA legend was to coach a basketball tournament there in which his daughter was supposed to play.
Also killed were John Altobelli, 56, longtime head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team; his wife, Keri; and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same basketball team as Bryant’s daughter; and Christina Mauser, a girls’ basketball coach at a Southern California elementary school.
Another young player, Payton Chester, was also killed in the crash along with her mother Sarah Chester.
Bryant’s death was mourned around the world in an outpouring of shocked grief.
Bryant’s death was mourned around the world in an outpouring of shocked grief. A person holds candles for a vigil in memory of Bryant at Kiener Plaza in downtown St Louis on Monday
DaMon Reece (center kneeling) from St. Louis, lights candles for a vigil in memory of Bryant at Kiener Plaza in downtown St Louis on Monday
A fan places flowers at a memorial for Bryant near Staples Center on Monday
People gather at a memorial for Bryant near Staples Center on Monday in Los Angeles
Fans are seen wiping away tears during a gathering at a memorial for Bryant near Staples Center on Monday
The historic 1928 Santa Ana water tower in Santa Ana, California, was illuminated in purple and gold light in remembrance of Bryant on Monday
The NBA postponed the Los Angeles Lakers’ next game against the Clippers on Tuesday night after the deaths of the retired superstar and the other victims.
The official investigation into the cause of the crash began on Monday and crews are still working to recover the bodies.
NTSB investigators scoured the area to collect evidence and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies on horseback patrolled the brushy Calabasas hillside.
Homendy said the NTSB expected to be on the scene for five days.
‘It was a pretty devastating accident scene,’ she said of the widespread wreckage.
‘A piece of the tail is down the hill. The fuselage is on the other side of that hill. And then the main rotor is about 100 yards beyond that.’
Homendy urged people with photographs of weather in the area at the time of the crash to send them to the NTSB.
However, she said investigating teams would look at everything, from the pilot’s history and actions to the state of the helicopter and its engines.
‘We look at man, machine and the environment,’ she said. ‘And weather is just a small portion of that.’
Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, are survived by his wife, Vanessa, and their children, Natalia, Bianka and Capri.