Air traffic controllers warned the helicopter that went down Sunday, killing NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others, that the aircraft was too low around the time of the crash.
Audio of the interactions between the pilot and air traffic controllers was posted to YouTube by The Telegraph.
The audio clip begins with an air traffic controller giving the Sikorsky S-76B in which Bryant was flying, tail number N72EX, its directions for the flight.
“Advise when you are in VFR conditions,” the controller radioed to the pilot.
“VFR” stands for “visual flight rules.” The helicopter had been flying under SVFR, or “special visual flight rules”, which are used for conditions such as Sunday, in which there was dense fog in the Los Angeles area. They allow pilots to fly under 1,000 feet, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The pilot then responded that the helicopter was at 1,400 feet. A later message said the helicopter was at 1,500 feet.
Then came a series of unanswered messages to the chopper.
A new air traffic controller then asked Zobayan to squawk “ident,” which would allow those on the ground to identify the helicopter’s transponder. There was no reply.
“You’re following a 1200 code. So you’re requesting flight following?” the controller asked. Flight following is a service that air traffic control provides to pilots flying visually to help avoid collisions.
Again, no reply.
“Helicopter 7-2 Echo X-ray, you’re still too low for flight following at this time,” the controller then said, meaning that it was too low to be tracked.
There was no reply.
Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are expected to focus on the weather as a contributing factor in the accident, according to NBC. Although a preliminary cause of the crash may be issued within days, the full investigation will take months.
“The primary focus will be on the weather and the deteriorating conditions,” Brian Alexander, an attorney at aviation law firm Kreindler & Kreindler LLP, told the network.
“This is the most challenging situation for a helicopter pilot when you have these marginal conditions that are changing rapidly as you go along your flight path,” Alexander added. “You have to make some quick decisions, and the workload while flying grows, which can lead to disorientation.”
Officials will also be looking at the condition of the aircraft and the record of its pilot, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“Our team will be looking at the history of the pilot … whatever crew was on board. We’ll be looking at maintenance records. At records of the owner and operator. And a number of other things as part of the investigation,” Jennifer Homendy, a member of the five-member NTSB, told the newspaper.
Kurt Deetz, who said he flew Bryant from 2014 to 2016, said he expects the weather will be the prime cause of the crash, according to the Times.
“The likelihood of a catastrophic twin-engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn’t happen,” he said.
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