Kobe Bryant crash pilot got disoriented in clouds, US National Transportation Safety Board says
The helicopter pilot who crashed into a hillside and killed Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers went against his training and violated rules by flying into thick clouds, US safety officials say.
- The pilot’s decision to fly into thick cloud has been criticised
- NTSB investigators said that the helicopter was banking and beginning to descend at increasing magnitude when the pilot thought it was ascending
- The pilot did not file a backup flight plan and chose not to land and wait for the bad weather to pass
Pilot Ara Zobayan likely became so disoriented that he could not discern up from down, investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have concluded.
The agency criticised Mr Zobayan’s decision to fly into the clouds, saying he 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.
Mr Zobayan was among the nine people killed, as was Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
The pilot became spatially disoriented in thick clouds. Spatial disorientation 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 January 26, 2020 crash, Mr 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.
They also said that Mr Zobayan did not file a backup flight plan and chose not to land at a nearby local airport to wait out the bad weather.
Tuesday’s federal hearing focused on the long-awaited probable causes of the crash that unleashed worldwide grief for the retired basketball star, launched several lawsuits and prompted state and federal legislation.
Bryant, Gianna and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County, when the helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
There was no sign of mechanical failure and the crash was believed to be an accident, the NTSB said previously.
The helicopter did not have “black box” recording devices.
The board, during its hearing, said it was likely to make nonbinding recommendations to prevent future crashes.
Pilot may have ‘misperceived’ flight angles
Over the past year, experts have speculated that the crash could lead to requiring Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems, devices that signal when aircraft are in danger of crashing, on helicopters.
The helicopter that Bryant was flying in did not have the system, which the NTSB has recommended be made mandatory for helicopters.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires it only for air ambulances.
However, NTSB investigator-in-charge Bill English said on Tuesday that the system 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,” Mr English said.
“The pilot doesn’t know which way is up.”
Federal investigators said Mr 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.
Investigators on Tuesday also faulted Mr 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. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.
The crash has generated lawsuits and countersuits.
On the day that a massive memorial service was held at the Staples Center, where Bryant played most of his career, Vanessa Bryant sued Mr Zobayan and the companies that owned and operated the helicopter for alleged negligence and the wrongful deaths of her husband and daughter.
Families of other victims sued the helicopter companies but not the pilot.