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Probe: Bryant helicopter was 100 feet from clear skies

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Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

FILE - In this March 2, 2019, file photo Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the first half of an NCAA college basketball game between Connecticut and Houston in Storrs, Conn. A public memorial service for Bryant, Gianna and seven others killed in a helicopter crash is planned for Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, at Staples Center in Los Angeles, a person with knowledge of the details told The Associated Press on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – A witness to the deadly crash of a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight others said it sounded normal just before slamming into a hillside and wreckage examined by experts at the scene showed no sign of engine failure, federal investigators said in a report released Friday.

The Jan. 26 crash occurred in cloudy conditions and aviation experts said the “investigative update” from the National Transportation Safety Board reinforces the notion the pilot became disoriented and crashed while trying to get to clear skies around Calabasas, northwest of Los Angeles.

The veteran pilot, Ara Zobayan, came agonizingly close to finding his way out of the clouds.

He told air traffic control he was climbing to 4,000 feet (1,219 meters). He ascended to 2,300 feet (701 meters), just 100 feet (30 meters) from what camera footage later reviewed by the NTSB showed was the top of the clouds.

But rather than continuing higher Zobayan began a high-speed descent and left turn in rapidly rising terrain. He slammed into the hillside at more than 180 mph (290 kph) and was descending at 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) per minute.

"“If you exit the bottom of the clouds at 4000 feet per minute at that high speed, you’ve certainly lost control of the aircraft,” air safety consultant Kipp Lau said. He said Bryant’s chopper could have emerged from the clouds in just 12 more seconds, assuming it was ascending at 500 feet (152.40 meters) per minute.

“Once you break out of the clouds it’s clear. Everything lines up with the body,” Lau said. “Now you have a real horizon."

Mike Sagely, a helicopter pilot in the Los Angeles area with 35 years of flying experience, said the aircraft's last moments suggest Zobayan had started to execute a maneuver designed to pop above the clouds by flying up and forward.