Pilot in tragic Kobe Bryant crash was cleared to fly in foggy weather

IRVINE, CA – JULY 26: Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant watch during day 2 of the Phillips 66 National Swimming Championships at the Woollett Aquatics Center on July 26, 2018 in Irvine, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The pilot flying the helicopter that crashed Sunday morning, killing nine, including NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, was cleared to take off in poor, foggy weather conditions and did not rely on his aircraft’s instruments to guide him, The Washington Post reports.

Recordings of his communications with air traffic controllers show the pilot, who was identified as Ara Zobayan, 50, was cleared for what are called special visual flight rules (SVSR) under his request, audio obtained by The Post, shows.

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The tower at Burbank Airport responds, asking him to hold, then make plans to fly to the northern side of Van Nuys Airport about 17 miles from Los Angeles before he landed there. He then indicates to Zobayan that other departures are emerging from a runway there and that he could “expect to follow the I-5 north and cross that way.” He acknowledges the instructions. But prior to requesting the SVFR clearance, he was told he was flying “too low for flight following at this time.” The entire conversation was captured by the website LiveATC.net.

Further flight data reveals that the copter, a 29-year-old Lockheed Martin Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, took a circular direction from Orange County Airport going toward Thousand Oaks, Calif., where Bryant was headed for his daughter’s basketball event at the MAMBA Academy. It went around the San Fernando Valley before approaching its destination.

Although National Transportation Safety Board investigators have not determined the final cause of the crash, preliminary flight data shows the helicopter reached a top altitude of 2,500 feet before descending quickly and crashing in the hills near Calabasas, Calif., about 40 minutes after takeoff.

Jeff Guzzetti, a former crash investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the foggy weather seems to have gotten worse as Zobayan attempted to follow the special rules that he requested, but that means that he may have tried to fly lower to avoid clouds and so that he could see the ground beneath the vehicle.

He says investigators now will have to ask: “Why did this flight occur when the weather was so poor?”

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Zobayan has held a commercial pilot’s license since 2007 and was qualified to fly in poor weather conditions, which are called instrument flight rules, FAA records show.

NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said a 20-person team is at the site investigating the crash and will be working with the FAA Lockheed Martin, and the engine manufacturer to determine a cause, although it is unclear when the investigation will be complete.

“One of the priorities is to collect as much perishable evidence as possible,” Holloway said.

Bryant, Gianna, Zobayan and six others were all confirmed killed in the crash. The five-time NBA champion has said in interviews that he began taking helicopters because traffic in Los Angeles was so bad that it was becoming a hindrance. In an interview with Alex Rodriguez and Dan ‘Big Cat’ Katz for “The Corp” podcast, Bryant said flying in a helicopter helped him make family events.

“I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft but still not compromise family time,” he said.

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