Multiple federal agencies have joined local authorities investigating what caused the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other passengers in Los Angeles County on Sunday. Currently, officials are focusing on foggy weather conditions in the area that day as well as potential mechanical problems, reports the Los Angeles Times.
The Times reports that visibility was so bad Sunday morning that Los Angeles police and the county sheriff’s office kept their helicopters on the ground. Experts told the paper that the foggy conditions alone wouldn’t necessarily keep Bryant’s aircraft from flying since it should have had instruments that allowed the helicopter to fly in bad weather. The question then becomes how the pilot was flying, whether they were using those instruments or flying under visual flight rules (VFR), which require relatively clear conditions.
Early indications seem to point to the instruments not being utilized. From the Times:
An audio recording of an exchange between the pilot and air traffic controllers indicates that he was flying under visual flight rules, but that could not be confirmed Sunday night. At one point, the pilot tells a controller that he is “in VFR at 1,500” feet.
According to USA Today, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told reporters Sunday night there was “an issue with visibility and a low ceiling” earlier in the day, but “the actual conditions at the time of impact, that is still yet to be determined.”
A former pilot for the company Bryant’s helicopter was registered to, Island Express Holding Corp., told the Times the aircraft was in “fantastic” condition and thought the crash was probably the result of inclement weather, rather than mechanical issues.
“The likelihood of a catastrophic twin-engine failure on that aircraft—it just doesn’t happen,” said Kurt Deetz.
As USA Today notes, Bryant traveled by helicopter regularly during his career as a Los Angeles Laker and post-retirement. Not only did the aircraft cut his travel times—helping him avoid L.A.’s infamous traffic—to Bryant, it was an important tool in protecting his ability to play:
“Sexy as it might seem, Bryant says the helicopter is just another tool for maintaining his body,” J.R. Moehringer wrote for GQ magazine in 2010. “It’s no different than his weights or his whirlpool tubs or his custom-made Nikes. Given his broken finger, his fragile knees, his sore back and achy feet, not to mention his chronic agita, Bryant can’t sit in a car for two hours.”
All of the nine people who died on the flight have been identified. Apart from the 41-year-old Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri, and their teenage daughter Alyssa were also on board. Payton Chester, who played basketball with Gianna “Gigi” Bryant and Alyssa Altobelli was also on the flight with her mother, Sarah Chester. Assistant girls basketball coach Christina Mauser was identified by her husband, Matt, as having been on the helicopter as well. Ara Zobayan piloted the aircraft that day.
All onboard were headed to a girls’ basketball game where Bryant was expected to coach.
Updated Monday, 1/27 at 4:00 p.m. ET: Audio from the helicopter carrying Bryant and eight others reveal that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, was given permission to fly on Sunday morning without using instruments specifically designed for poor weather.
As the Washington Post reports, Zobayan asked and was approved for “special visual flight rules,” which require pilots to fly lower to the ground to keep out of clouds. The weather also seemed to worsen during the flight.
Zobayan held a commercial license since 2007 and was qualified to fly in bad weather conditions, FAA records show. As the Post notes, he was qualified to teach people how to fly in weather requiring instrument flight rules, suggesting Zobayan had significant flying experience.