Federal safety officials have blamed the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others on board last year on the pilot’s poor decision to fly into clouds where he became disoriented and plunged into a Southern California hillside.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that pilot Ara Zobayan’s decision to fly into the clouds violated federal standards that required him to be able to see where he was going before the helicopter crashed during a roughly 40-minute flight. Zobayan was among the nine people killed, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
The pilot went against his training by becoming spatially disoriented in thick clouds, a condition that can happen to pilots in low visibility, when they cannot tell up from down or discern which way an aircraft is banking, board members said.
Just before the crash, Zobayan told flight controllers he was climbing in the helicopter and had nearly broken through the clouds.
But NTSB investigators said that the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter was in fact banking and beginning to descend at increasing magnitude, investigators said.
They also said that Zobayan did not file a backup flight plan and chose not to land at a nearby local airport to wait out the bad weather.
There was 184 aircraft crashes between 2010-2019 involving spatial disorientation, including 20 fatal helicopter crashes, the NTSB said.
NTSB member Michael Graham said Zobayan ignored his training and added that that as long as helicopter pilots continue flying into clouds without relying on instruments, which requires a high level of training, “a certain percentage aren’t going to come out alive.”
“What part of cloud, when you’re on a visual flight rules program, do pilots not understand?” added NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg.
Tuesday’s federal hearing focused on the long-awaited probable cause or causes of the tragedy that unleashed worldwide grief for the retired basketball star, launched several lawsuits and prompted state and federal legislation.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on January 26, 2020, when the helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into hills below, killing all nine on board instantly before flames engulfed the wreckage.
There was no sign of mechanical failure and the crash was believed to be an accident, the National Transportation Safety Board has said previously.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates transport-related crashes but has no enforcement powers.
It submits suggestions to agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration or the Coast Guard, which have repeatedly rejected some board safety recommendations after other disasters.
The helicopter that Bryant was flying in did not have the system, which the NTSB has recommended as mandatory for helicopters. The FAA requires it only for air ambulances.
However, NTSB investigator-in-charge Bill English said on Tuesday that the system, known as TAWS, would likely not have been helpful in the scenario in which Bryant’s helicopter crashed.
The hilly terrain, combined with the pilot’s spatial disorientation in the clouds, would have been “a confusing factor”, English said.
“The pilot doesn’t know which way is up,” English said.
Federal investigators said Zobayan, an experienced pilot who often flew Bryant, may have “misperceived” the angles at which he was descending and banking, which can occur when pilots become disoriented in low visibility, according to NTSB documents.
Investigators on Tuesday also faulted Zobayan for banking to the left instead of ascending straight up while trying to climb out of the bad weather.
The others killed in the crash were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton.