Kobe Bryant helicopter crash investigators to review records, fog conditions, experts say

The federal investigation of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others began to unfold Monday as experts examined the chopper’s maintenance history and questioned why the pilot flew in foggy conditions. 

Visibility Sunday morning was so poor that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office and Police Department grounded their choppers. It’s unclear if weather played a role in the crash.

Low clouds and fog were in the area at the time of the crash, the Weather Channel said. When the helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport at 9:06 a.m. Sunday, visibility on the ground was only about 3 or 4 miles, and the lowest overcast cloud layer was only 1,000 to 1,500 feet above ground, according to weather.com meteorologist Brian Donegan.

Investigators will review flight records and collect data from the helicopter’s operator to help determine why it slammed into a hillside near Malibu, National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said. 

But gathering evidence and recovering the bodies from the wreckage will be difficult. The chopper crashed in rugged terrain, and the limited roads to access the site have been flooded with onlookers, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.

Recovery and identification of the nine victims is expected to be completed over the next few days, said Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner Jonathan Lucas. Bryant was on the helicopter with his daughter, Gianna; John Altobelli, head baseball coach at Orange Coast College; and his wife and daughter, Keri and Alyssa.

Girls basketball coach Christina Mauser was also among the victims, said Katrina Foley, mayor of Costa Mesa, California. Mauser was an assistant coach to Bryant in youth basketball.

The wreckage of the Sikorsky S-76B covered 100 yards and emitted smoke for hours on Sunday. 

Searching for a data collection device in the charred wreckage is one of the next steps, said Dan Deutermann, a consultant for aviation risk management company The Squadron.  

Low visibility at the time of the crash could call into question the validity of witness interviews, Deutermann added. 

“They’re going to look at pilot records and see if they can piece together any witness statements, which witnesses are so-so on a foggy day,” Deutermann said. 

Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps, said weather may have contributed to the crash. Pilots can become disoriented in low visibility, losing their sense of direction. 

The helicopter model carrying Bryant and eight others has a good safety record, said Shawn Coyle, an experienced helicopter pilot and expert witness on accidents. He says the decision to fly in fog may have contributed to the crash.

“With an aircraft like that, that’s capable of flying on airways, why they would be flying in bad weather’s got to be in question,” Coyle said. “It’s capable of flying on the same airways that an airliner flies on, obviously at lower altitude.”

The NTSB  will likely release a preliminary report within about 10 days. It may take a year or more for the board to announce the cause of the crash.