The New York Times

The New York Times 30 Jan 2020

Kobe Bryant's Last Flight: What We Know About His Helicopter's Route


A deeper look at the route of Kobe Bryant's helicopter before it crashed to understand how such an accident could occur.

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… show captions ↓
This is the flight path of the helicopter carrying
Kobe Bryant and eight others, which
crashed near Los Angeles.
It’s a common route, spanning an area well-traveled
by aircraft every day.
So we wanted to understand how, despite this, such
an accident could occur.
Using a chartered helicopter, flight tracking data
and images from the day, we’ve re-traced the flight path
to examine the conditions that may have led to the crash.
The helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport
in Orange County.
Its destination, another airport
near the sports academy, which Bryant owned.
The first half of the flight is uneventful.
The terrain, here in the Los Angeles basin, is flat.
That makes it relatively easy to navigate, even
in overcast weather.
Bryant, himself, made the trip routinely.
On the day of the crash, the weather in this area is fine.
There’s four miles visibility.
Within 13 minutes, the helicopter
passes by downtown Los Angeles,
passes Dodger Stadium and begins
to enter the San Fernando Valley.
The terrain begins to rise.
That day, air controllers tell Bryant’s pilot
to stay in a holding pattern over the city of Glendale.
They circle for more than 10 minutes,
as other air traffic is cleared.
It’s around this time that a retired pilot on the ground
happens to film the helicopter overhead.
We can see in the footage that the sky
is considerably overcast.
The pilot received special clearance
to continue on in the low-visibility weather …
… and flies into the San Fernando Valley,
following the freeway system along the edge
of the foothills.
We can see the densely populated terrain is still
low and flat.
The weather for our chartered flight is clear,
but images from the day of Bryant’s flight
show that visibility has become extremely limited.
One reason: If we pause and pull up,
we can see that the Pacific Ocean is just
on the other side of these hills.
Cold, moist air coming off the water,
and hitting the mountains, can quickly
form thick and low cloud cover.
With a lower ceiling and higher mountainous terrain,
there’s now a much smaller path to safely fly.
Roughly three minutes before the crash,
the helicopter begins flying along Highway 101.
It’s a common route.
The highway is a distinct landmark
that’s easy to follow, and it runs
through a low point in the foothills,
making it easier for pilots to stay below cloud cover.
Bryant’s pilot had requested “flight following,”
where controllers track an aircraft to help the pilot
during rough conditions.
Just before the crash, the ground controller
tells the pilot he’s too low for tracking.
The pilot radios that he’s climbing
to avoid the cloud layer.
The helicopter quickly gains altitude.
At about 2,300 feet, it turns away from Highway 101,
and crashes into the side of a hill.
The debris field is around 500 feet long.
Investigators said that the helicopter
may have missed clearing the top of the hill
by 20 to 30 feet.
They still haven’t determined a cause for the crash.

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