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Source: Kobe copter in climb before rapid dive
11:51 PM ET
  • Paula LavigneESPN Staff Writer

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    • Data analyst and reporter for ESPN’s Enterprise and Investigative Unit.
    • Winner, 2014 Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award; finalist, 2012 IRE broadcast award; winner, 2011 Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism; Emmy nominated, 2009.

The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight other passengers that crashed into a hillside in Southern California on Sunday was in a climbing left turn about 2,400 feet high before it dove to the ground, a person familiar with preliminary investigative information about the fatal crash told ESPN.

Further, the source told ESPN, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, the pilot had, only moments before, contacted air traffic controllers to say that he had begun a climb to “go above the layer” of clouds present.

The chopper went down in Calabasas, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles after departing John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. PT. The first 911 call reporting the crash was received at 9:47 a.m.

Audio reviewed by ESPN indicates that a few minutes prior to the crash, an air traffic controller told the pilot he was “still too low level for flight following,” meaning the aircraft was below the level at which it could be picked up by radar due to the area’s hilly terrain. That audio came from recordings posted on LiveATC.net, which has partial audio of the communication between the pilot and air traffic controllers.

Additional recordings between the pilot and air traffic controllers posted on the site indicate that the pilot was getting guidance from controllers as he navigated what was reported to be a dense morning fog.

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 Interstate 5 through Burbank before turning west to follow U.S Route 101, the Ventura Highway.

Shortly after 9:40 a.m., the helicopter turned again, toward the southeast, and climbed to more than 2,000 feet above sea level. It then descended and crashed into the hillside at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24.

When it struck the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 160 knots (184 mph) and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute (45 mph), the Flightradar24 data showed.

Authorities said that nine people were aboard the helicopter and presumed dead. Bryant, an all-time basketball great who spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, was among the victims.

Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna also was killed, a source told ESPN.

The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team of investigators to the site. The NTSB typically issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that gives a rough summary of what investigators have learned. A ruling on the cause of aviation crashes can take a year or more.

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

An FAA aircraft registration database showed the helicopter was a 1991 Sikorsky S-76B model owned by a company named Island Express Holding Corp. It was previously owned by the State of Illinois, according to the database.

“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.

Colin Storm was in his living room in Calabasas when he heard what sounded to him like a low-flying airplane or helicopter.

“It was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “But then we heard some sputtering, and then a boom.”

Storm could see smoke rising from the hillside in front of his home.

Firefighters hiked in with medical equipment and hoses, and medical personnel rappelled to the site from a helicopter, but found no survivors, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

Firefighters worked to douse flames that spread through about a quarter acre of dry brush, Osby said.

Los Angeles Police Department spokesman Josh Rubenstein said that the department’s Air Support division grounded its helicopters Sunday morning due to foggy conditions and didn’t fly until later in the afternoon.

“The weather situation did not meet our minimum standards for flying,” Rubenstein said.

The fog “was enough that we were not flying.” LAPD’s flight minimums are 2 miles of visibility and an 800-foot cloud ceiling, he said. The department typically flies two helicopters when conditions allow — one in the San Fernando Valley and one in the L.A. basin, he said.

The LAPD Air Support Division is the largest municipal airborne law enforcement organization in the United States, according to the department.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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