Kobe Bryant’s doomed helicopter pilot was warned Sunday he was flying “too low” to be picked up by radar as he carried eight passengers through foggy conditions approaching Calabasas, Calif.
He likely never heard the transmission.
As the Sikorsky S-76 was transitioning from 1,500 feet in Van Nuys Helicopter airspace to pick up a path along the 101 freeway, it apparently dipped out of radio contact, according to audio archived by LiveATC.net.
Air traffic controller SoCal Approach tried multiple times to reach Ara Zobayan to provide flight tracking and help him maintain separation with other aircraft, the audio reveals.
“Echo X-ray ident,” a SoCal controller says, using the phonetic alphabet for the ending of the chopper’s N72EX tail number.
“Echo X-ray, yeah, you’re following a 1,200 code, uh, are you requesting flight following?” the controller asks.
“2 Echo X-ray, say intentions,” the male voice asks.
“What are you?” the voice adds before the transmission gets garbled.
“2 Echo X-ray, you’re still too low level for flight following at this time,” the voice states.
One expert said it’s likely Zobayan couldn’t hear SoCal as he traveled in an area where hilly terrain probably blocked the radio transmissions.
“It sounds like he was trying to fly below the cloud ceiling,” Chuck Street, executive director of the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Operators Association, told the Daily News, adding that he knew Zobayan and believes the crash was weather-related.
“I’ve done that route myself. You follow the 101 freeway, and in that area, it starts to get pretty hilly. Maybe he had forward visibility, but you might be below the level of the hilltops,” Street said.
“It appears he maybe flew into a fog bank, had to make split-second decision about how to proceed, relied on his training, and it didn’t go his way,” Street said, adding that his early speculation was based on the facts released so far.
“I don’t think it was mechanical,” he said. “I think he likely decided to turn back, made a 180-degree turn and hit the terrain. It’s what we’re taught in training. When you hit zero visibility conditions, you turn around and go back to where you could see the terrain.”
The Los Angeles Police Department grounded its air support division early Sunday due to dense fog and clouds that hampered visibility.
“The weather situation did not meet our minimum standards for flying,” LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein told The News.
The Sikorsky S-76 chopper that Bryant and his group flew boarded at John Wayne Airport in Orange County en route to Bryant’s Mamba basketball academy in Thousand Oaks. It crashed into a rugged hillside near the 101 freeway in Calabasas shortly before 10 a.m. California time.
Nearby residents told The News they heard a loud explosion and could see the black smoke rising from the wreckage through the foggy conditions.
Bryant, 41, died in the catastrophic crash along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.
Two of Gianna’s teammates on her Mamba Academy basketball squad, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, also died along with one of their coaches, Christina Mauser.
The other dead were identified by relatives and colleagues as Orange Coast College baseball coaching legend John Altobelli and his wife Keri Altobelli, and Payton’s mom Sarah Chester.
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