Kobe Bryant: Calabasas helicopter crash investigation to focus on weather, history of pilot and chopper

CALABASAS, Calif. (KABC) -- Investigators say the helicopter carrying NBA legend Kobe Bryant and eight others that crashed into a rugged Calabasas hillside Sunday was flying in foggy conditions considered dangerous enough that local police agencies grounded their choppers.

The cause of the crash that also claimed the life of Bryant's daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, remains under investigation, but conditions at the time were such that the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff's department grounded their helicopters.

The Los Angeles County medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, said the rugged terrain complicated efforts to recover the remains. Investigators were able to reach the crash site by ATVs Monday morning, and three bodies were recovered from the scene. Lucas estimated it would take at least a couple of days to complete the task before identifications can be made.

The debris field is described as bigger than a football field, spanning an area of 500 to 600 feet. The impact crater is located on a hillside 1,085 feet above sea level. Pieces of the wreckage are on both sides of the hill.

Aviation experts describe the Sikorsky S-76 as a well-made aircraft that could seat at least a dozen people.

"The S-76 is a pretty expensive, sophisticated helicopter. ... It's certainly a quality helicopter," said Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps.

Green believes weather may have contributed to the crash. Pilots can become disoriented in bad weather, losing track of which direction is up. Green said a pilot flying an S-76 would be instrument-rated, meaning they could fly the helicopter without relying on visual cues from outside.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said his department's choppers would not have left their airport in Long Beach in such weather conditions.

"When they're socked in for low visibility because of the fog, the marine layer, they're just not gonna take off," he said."

But he noted that the department's choppers are smaller and less sophisticated in terms of electronics than the S-76.

"It's not safe because our helicopters, the patrol helicopters, they're small. They only seat four passengers. They do not do instrumentation flight. They have to do visual flight only. If it's less than 2,000 feet visibility, they're just not taking off."

The NTSB confirmed that weather is one of several factors that investigators are examining. They are asking the public to send in any pictures they may have taken in the area of the crash that morning. The crash was reported at 9:47 a.m. Sunday in Calabasas.

Weather pictures can be emailed to: witness@ntsb.gov

Among other things, federal transportation safety investigators will look at the pilot's history, the chopper's maintenance records and the records of its owner and operator, said NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy at a news conference.

The helicopter did not carry a "black box" recording flight data and was not required to have one, Homendy said. But the pilot had an iPad that had some data, including a flight plan and weather briefings. Investigators may be able to examine other electronics from the aircraft for evidence.

The National Transportation Safety Board typically issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that will give a rough summary of what investigators have learned. A ruling on the cause can take a year or more.

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Here's what we know so far about the nine people, including Kobe Bryant, who were killed when a helicopter crashed in Calabasas Sunday morning.

Bryant's helicopter left Santa Ana in Orange County shortly after 9 a.m. and circled for a time just east of the 5 Freeway, near Glendale. Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank, just to the north, and Van Nuys, to the northwest.

After holding up the helicopter for other aircraft, they cleared the Sikorsky S-76 to proceed north along the 5 Freeway through Burbank before turning west to follow the 101 Freeway.

Shortly after 9:40 a.m., the helicopter turned again, toward the southeast, and climbed to more than 2,000 feet. It then descended and crashed into the hillside at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24. Data also revealed the chopper lost control about 15 seconds before impact.

When it struck the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 184 mph and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the data showed.

The chopper went down in Calabasas, where Bryant's nearby Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks was holding a basketball tournament Sunday. Bryant and his young daughter were on their way to a travel basketball game along with another player and parent.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the passenger manifest indicated there were nine people on board - a pilot and eight passengers.

John Altobelli, a baseball coach in his 28th season at Orange Coast College was killed in the crash. It is believed his wife and daughter were with him on the helicopter.

Another victim was identified by friends and family as Christina Mauser, an assistant basketball coach at Harbor Day School in Orange County.

Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton were on the helicopter when it crashed, friends and family say.

News of the charismatic Los Angeles Lakers superstar's death rocked the sports and entertainment worlds. At Staples Center, thousands of fans showed up, creating impromptu memorials with candles and flowers and holding Lakers banners. A digital sign at L.A. Live showed an image of Bryant with the words "In Loving Memory of Kobe Bryant."

Fans also gathered near the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo.

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Rob Fukuzaki is looking back at Kobe Bryant's career and what he meant for the city of Los Angeles.

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"Words can't describe the pain I'm feeling," Michael Jordan said in a statement. "I loved Kobe - he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force. Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply - and took great pride in his daughter's love for the game of basketball."

Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson issued a statement: "The crash was a tragedy for multiple families. My heart goes out to Vanessa and the families that lost loved ones. Kobe was a chosen one - special in many ways to many people. Our relationship as coach/player transcended the norm. He went beyond the veil."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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