LA police grounded helicopters because of dangerous fog before Kobe Bryant crash

Rozina Sabur
Buildings around the Los Angeles Lakers home arena pay tribute to Kobe Bryant - AFP

Basketball legend Kobe Bryant's helicopter pilot was given approval to fly in weather conditions considered dangerous enough for Los Angeles Police to ground its own fleet, it has emerged.

Bryant, 41, was killed along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others when his Sikorsky S-76 helicopter crashed into the rugged hillside outside Los Angeles on Sunday.

The cause of the crash is still being investigated, but audio of a radio conversation between the pilot, identified as Ara Zobayan, and an air traffic control tower has revealed the helicopter requested to fly under "special visual flight rules" (SVFR).

The special clearance allows a pilot to fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for standard flights. In chilling audio of the conversation, the control tower can be heard warning the pilot that he is flying "too low for flight following" shortly before the fatal crash.

Conditions at the time were such that the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff's department decided to grounded their own helicopters, with LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein telling the Los Angeles Times that the weather "did not meet our minimum standards for flying".

The revelations has raised questions over why the basketball star's chopper was allowed to fly, with aviation experts suggesting the foggy conditions will likely to be at the centre of the federal investigation into the cause of the crash.  

Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps, said pilots can become disoriented in low visibility, losing track of which direction is up.

Kurt Deetz, a pilot who used to fly Bryant in his chopper, said the crash was more likely caused by bad weather than by engine or other mechanical problems.

"The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft  - it just doesn't happen," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Bryant, who helped guide the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships before retiring in 2016, was one of America's most popular sporting legends.

People gather around a makeshift memorial for the basketball legend Credit: AFP

Thousands of fans gathered outside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, home to the Lakers, to honour the basketball star.

Meanwhile the BBC apologised after mistakenly using footage of another basketball great, LeBron James, in its coverage of the tragedy.

Footage of James, who also plays for the Los Angeles Lakers and beating Bryant's career points tally over the weekend, appeared in the BBC's News At Ten programme on Sunday night.

BBC footage showing LeBron James during a report on Kobe Bryant

The report did not explain why footage of James was included in its report and the broadcaster was heavily criticised for the error online.

Paul Royall, editor of BBC News at Six and Ten, apologised for the mistake and blamed "human error".