The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant flew through a thick fog, despite Los Angeles police grounding their own fleet, before crashing into a hillside in Calabasas, California, killing all nine on board on Sunday morning.
The 41-year-old former Lakers basketball star’s private Sikorsky S-76 immediately caught fire after coming down at around 10 am. Bryant died alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.
Flight data shows the aircraft appeared to get into trouble above the LA Zoo where it circled at a very low altitude and air traffic control audio suggests conditions were worsening in the run-up to the crash.
Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Josh Rubenstein confirmed their Air Support Division was grounded Sunday, adding: ‘The weather situation did not meet our minimum standards for flying.’
Initial reports claimed five people had been killed, but the death toll was raised to nine – including the pilot, named locally as Ara Zobayan. Among those also killed was John Altobelli, a baseball coach at Orange County College, his wife Keri and daughter Alyssa. Girls basketball coach Christina Mauser was also killed in the crash.
The cause of the crash is under investigation but the control tower at Burbank Airport was contacted by the pilot shortly before 10 am local time. At around 9.40 am the helicopter turned south, towards a mountainous area, flight tracker data shows. Five minutes later it hit the hillside at 1700 feet, near the home of Kourtney Kardashian.
In air traffic control audio taken shortly before the crash, the pilot is told he is ‘too low’ for radar tracking although this does not appear to be part of a mayday or distress call. The pilot appears to be getting guidance through the bad weather.
One eyewitness said they ‘didn’t hear any anomalies with the engine’. Scott Daehlin, who was one the first onlookers to contact officials about the crash, told People: ‘It seemed to be running fine.’ He said he believes ‘visibility’ was at fault.
Bryant, an 18-time NBA All-Star, was said to have been headed to Mamba Academy – which he founded – in Thousand Oaks for a youth tournament involving his daughter and her teammate Alyssa.
Officials with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department responded to the scene near Las Virgenes Rd and Willow Glen St in Calabasas after a group of mountain bikers spotted the smoke. The crash site is said to be difficult to access and authorities say it could take several days to recover bodies.