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Kobe's Pilot Asked Controllers to Track Him. He Was Too Low

Helicopter wasn't showing up on radar, causing pilot to begin a rapid ascent
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 28, 2020 1:29 PM CST
Updated Jan 28, 2020 2:34 PM CST
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NTSB Board Member Jennifer Homendy briefs the media about the helicopter crash that killed former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and eight others, at the Lost Hills substation in Calabasas, Calif., on Monday.   (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

(Newser) – The pilot of Kobe Bryant's helicopter told air traffic control he was climbing higher to avoid a layer of clouds. It was the last communication from Ara Zobayan before the chopper crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, Calif., says Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board, per CNN. When air traffic controllers asked the pilot for more details, Zobayan did not respond. The ensuing crash killed all nine aboard. Earlier, the pilot had asked controllers to keep track of the helicopter in heavy fog, but as he neared the hills of Calabasas, they told him he was now too low too show up on radar, reports the Los Angeles Times. Zobayan began a rapid ascent, enough to clear the hills. "What happened next was mysterious," per the Times. The chopper went off course, then entered into a rapid descent and never recovered.

An aviation consultant tells the newspaper that the rapid ascent, followed by a rapid descent, suggests the pilot realized he was too close to the ground and was trying to correct. In addition to the warning about not showing up on radar, it's likely a warning device in the chopper would have been saying, "Terrain!" "Terrain" over and over. A pilot can easily become "spatially disoriented" while climbing rapidly after such a warning, the consultant says. Earlier in the flight, Zobayan had received permission to fly by Special Visual Flight Rules, meaning visibility was so bad he had to rely on instruments and air traffic control guidance. NPR reports the helicopter wasn't required to have a black box, complicating the ongoing investigation. The NTSB has asked the public to submit photos of the weather in the area at the time of the crash to witness@ntsb.gov, per AccuWeather. (Later Tuesday, officials announced all nine bodies have been recovered.)

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