The pilot of the helicopter that was carrying Kobe Bryant, his teen daughter Gianna, and six others to a basketball game told air traffic control he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer just before the aircraft crashed, killing everyone aboard, federal investigators said Monday.
When the pilot, identified by friends as Ara Zobayan, was asked what he "planned to do, there was no reply," National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy told reporters.
"Radar data indicates the helicopter climbed to 2,300 feet and then began a left descending turn," she added. "Last radar contact was around 9:45 a.m. and is consistent with the accident location."
Authorities received a 911 call at 9:47 a.m. reporting the helicopter crash and subsequent brush fire on a hillside in Calabasas.
While officials have not released the victims' identities, the NBA and others have identified Bryant, his daughter, two other teenage girls and their family members, a basketball coach, and the pilot as the victims. They were on their way from Orange County to a girls basketball game at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousands Oaks.
Zobayan, who was reportedly "instrument-rated," meaning he was able to fly in fog and clouds, had received special permission minutes earlier to fly at less than the basic visual flight rules of a 1,000-foot ceiling and three miles of visibility Sunday morning, investigators said.
The Washington Post reported that the weather observation at the nearby Van Nuys Airport at 9:51 a.m. recorded visibility of 2.5 miles with 80% relative humidity and a ceiling of 1,300 feet, along with calm winds and some haze.
Homendy said the NTSB is looking into how weather may have played a role and asked the public to send the agency any photos they may have taken that showed the weather conditions in the area around the time of the crash.
The visibility conditions were poor enough that helicopters at airports in the Los Angeles area, including those belonging to both the sheriff's and city police departments, had been grounded.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the department's patrol helicopters are smaller and do not have the instrumentation to fly when visibility is poor, telling reporters Monday that "if there's less than 2,000 feet visibility, they're just not taking off."
Homendy said there was no black box for Bryant's aircraft and that there was no requirement to have one. The helicopter did have an iPad that the pilot used during the flight, she said, adding that investigators would be looking at other electronics.
She described the debris field as being about 500 to 600 feet.
"It was a pretty devastating accident scene," Homendy said.
In an interview in 2018 with Barstool Sports, Bryant, who was known to commute via helicopter during his NBA career, said he'd end up missing his kids' after-school activities and other events because of traffic and wanted to find a way to better balance training and family time.
"The routine was always the same. Weights early in the morning, kids to school, fly down, practice like crazy, do my extra work, media, everything I needed to do, fly back, get back in the carpool line, and pick the kids up," he said.
Zobayan was Bryant’s private pilot, according to one of his flight students, Darren Kemp, who told the Los Angeles Times the NBA star didn’t “let anyone else fly him around."