Pilot Tried to Gain Altitude to Avoid Cloud Layer Before Crash that Killed Kobe Bryant: Investigator
National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy described the "pretty devastating accident scene" on Monday, a day after Kobe Bryant was killed
During a press conference on Monday evening, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told reporters that some families of the victims have visited the crash site, which National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy described as a “pretty devastating accident scene.”
Homendy also shared that the pilot, identified by PEOPLE as Ara Zobayan, attempted to fly higher to avoid a cloud layer shortly before crashing.
“Initial information shows that the helicopter was flying under visual flight rules (VFR) from John Wayne Airport to just southeast of Burbank Airport. Around Burbank, the pilot requested to transit controlled airspace under special visual flight rules. Special VFR is an air traffic control authorization that allows an aircraft to proceed through controlled airspace at less than the basic VFR minimums of 1,000 ft. ceiling and three miles visibility,” she said.
“ATC advised the pilot there was a delay due to traffic while awaiting approval the helicopter circled for 12 minutes until the special VFR was approved by Air Traffic Control. The helicopter transited the Burbank and Van Nuys airspace at 1,400 ft. and proceeded south then west. The pilot requested flight following to continue to Camarillo, but Southern California TRACON advised the pilot was too low for flight following,” Homendy continued.
“Approximately four minutes later, the pilot advised they were climbing to avoid a cloud layer. When ATC asked what the pilot planned to do, there was no reply. Radar data indicates the helicopter climbed 2,300 ft. and began a left descending turn. Last radar contact was 9:45 a.m. and is consistent with the accident location,” she concluded.
Flight following is radar assistance for a flight that helps the pilot avoid traffic. It is used for communication between air traffic control and the pilot. “When air traffic control said they were too low, it wasn’t that they were too low, it was too low to provide flight following assistance,” Homendy later clarified.
In addition, she said the Sikorsky S-76 aircraft did not have a black box, which is a flight data recorder usually located in the cockpit of an airplane or helicopter. “There isn’t a requirement to have a black box on this,” she said.
Then, when asked about the weather on the day of the incident, which was foggy for areas in Southern California, Homendy told reporters, “We look at weather and we’ll have to determine that at some time,” later adding, “We take a broad look at everything around an investigation, around an accident. We look at man, machine and the environment, and weather is just a small portion of that.”
On Sunday, the helicopter piloted by Zobayan departed from the John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. local time, according to online flight records. The aircraft, carrying a total of nine people, was set to arrive at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park for a scheduled game, according to ESPN.
Approximately 40 minutes later, the helicopter crashed in Calabasas.
Following the incident, on Sunday evening, Villanueva and Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby held a press conference, during which they confirmed there were a total of nine victims.
“All survivors were determined to have been perished,” Osby said, adding it took authorities eight minutes to get to the crash site.
Spokespersons for Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
Bryant is survived by wife Vanessa, 37, and three of their four children together: daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months.
Following the incident, PEOPLE confirmed the identities of the seven other victims involved in the crash.
John Altobelli, the head baseball coach at Orange Coast College, was on board the aircraft with Kobe and Gianna, as well as wife Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa Altobelli, who was a teammate of Gianna’s.
John’s brother, Tony Altobelli, told PEOPLE, “I’m numb right now, I’m numb, I’m broken, I’m going to miss him terribly. He was my brother, he was my idol growing up, also my idol as an adult. You want to live my brother did, he was straight and narrow, he worked hard and he earned the respect of everybody who ever knew him and he left a legacy that will go way beyond his time spent in Orange Coast. I don’t know how you can not want to live a life like that.”
Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton Chester, who was also a teammate, were also on board the helicopter that was piloted by Ara Zobayan, who was killed.
In addition, girls basketball coach Christina Mauser of Harbor Day School in Orange County, California, died in the crash. “She loved three things so much: her husband, her three kids, and basketball. That’s who she was,” Mauser’s friend told PEOPLE of Christina.