Kobe Bryant helicopter crash: New NTSB documents appear to point to pilot disorientation in fog

The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant descended steeply and crashed, killing all nine passengers aboard, even though its pilot said in his last radio transmission that he was climbing to 4,000 feet, documents released Wednesday by federal investigators show.

The pilot never told air traffic controllers about plans to turn and descend after they asked him about his intentions once he was at the new, high altitude, raising new questions about whether he could have become disoriented as a fog layer hung over a valley near Calabasas, California, that quiet Sunday morning in January.

The details are part of approximately 1,700 pages of documents, maps, interview and text message transcripts released by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB, however, offered no analysis or conclusions, which it said will come later.

Taken together, however, the documents shed more light on the crash that killed retired NBA superstar Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, six friends and the pilot, Ara Zobayan. The tragedy resulted in an outpouring of grief around the nation with memorials, flowers and a ceremony attended by thousands at Staples Center, the home of the Los Angeles Lakers.

After lifting off with Kobe and his party from Santa Ana, California, the helicopter proceeded without incident except for when it was ordered to briefly hold near north of Los Angeles, due to other air traffic. Then it went on.

In the final exchange of radio transmissions, Zobayan got permission from controllers to fly visually, hugging the ground to avoid a layer of fog above him, and using a freeway below to navigate. About four minutes later, just before communications were lost at 9:45 a.m. PST on Jan. 26, a controller asked Zobayan, using the call sign N72EX, what what he planned to do.

At least weather-wise, Zobayan expected the next day to be an improvement. In a text sent to him the evening before the crash asking him about the weather, Zobayan replied that he had just checked and it was “Not the best day tomorrow but it is not as bad as today.” In the morning, he texted that weather “should be OK.”

Controllers said they had the copter in sight when it was ordered to be in the vicinity of the airport, but lost sight as it proceeded toward its destination. Later, word spread among them that the crash had occurred.