(PAGESIX) – The pilot of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter was warned he was flying too low for so-called “flight following” – meaning the chopper could not be picked up by radar to receive guidance from air traffic control under visual flight rules.
Moments later, he crashed into a California mountainside at around 185 mph, killing all nine people aboard, while operating at “special visual flight rules,” or SVFR, which allows a pilot to fly in conditions worse than those allowed for standard visual flight rules, or VFR.
The audio between pilot Ara Zobayan and air traffic control reveals an attempt to guide the Sikorsky S-76B — tail number N72EX — to Burbank Airport.
“Helicopter 7-2 Echo X-ray, you’re still too low for flight following at this time,” the controller tells Zobayan.
The pilot had been holding for 15 minutes while other flights were taking off under IFR, or instrument flight rules, and he requested the Special VFR clearance.
“Maintain Special VFR at or below 2,500 (feet)” the pilot confirms to the controller.
“Advise when you are in VFR conditions,” the controller radios to Zobayan at one point when the helicopter was at 1,400 feet.
The pilot then informs ATC that he is flying VFR at 1,500 feet and requests flight following from SoCal, which handles low-altitude traffic in Southern California.
Flight following is a service that air traffic control provides to pilots under VFR to improve their situational awareness and avoid collisions with other aircraft.
The controller asks Zobayan to squawk “ident,” which would allow him to identify the chopper’s transponder on radar.
“You’re following a 1200 code. So you’re requesting flight following?” the controller asks, referring to the transponder code used while flying VFR.
That’s when he warns Zobayan that he’s “still too low for flight following” before communications cut off completely.
Aviation sources said the LA weather was extremely foggy Sunday morning and most helicopter traffic was grounded.
Zobayan climbed to 2,000 feet, then descended at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute and flew into a mountain at about 1,400 feet at a speed of 161 knots, or 185 mph, according to data from FlightRadar24.
A second aviation source said Bryant’s chopper had twin engines, so they would not have crashed if they had lost one engine.
“All the signs point to a CFIT [controlled flight into terrain] which is when an aircraft under the complete control of a pilot is inadvertently flown into the land, sea, or a building,” the source said. “These accidents happen when the pilot loses situational awareness. The crash site also points to this, given how the debris is scattered, it looks like they went nose-first into the mountain.”
The source added, “Kobe’s helicopter is 29 years old, and most Sikorsky S-76s fly with two pilots. On Sunday, Kobe had just one pilot, who was likely flying on visual flight rules, rather than using instruments to monitor altitude.”
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident.