Federal safety officials on Tuesday blamed the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others on board last year on the pilot’s poor decision to fly into thick clouds, where he became disoriented and plunged the aircraft into a Southern California hillside. The National Transportation Safety Board said poor visibility probably led pilot Ara Zobayan to become so disoriented in thick fog north of Los Angeles that he could not perceive up from down.
The five board members also said Zobayan, who also died in the crash, ignored his training and violated federal regulations during the 40-minute flight.
The agency announced its findings during a four-hour hearing aimed at pinpointing probable causes of the tragedy — which led to widespread public mourning 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, when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley on January 26, 2020. There was no sign of mechanical failure and the crash was believed to be an accident.
Investigators said they believed Zobayan experienced a spatial disorientation known as “the leans,” which occurs in the inner ear and causes pilots to believe they are flying aircraft straight and level when they are in fact banking.
The agency criticized Zobayan’s decision to fly into the clouds, saying Federal Aviation Administration standards require that pilots are able to see where they are going under what is called Visual Flight Rules.
Board members, in a unanimous vote, also cited the self-induced pressure Zobayan likely felt to finish the flight for his star client, whom he flew often, instead of landing at a nearby local airport when the weather became worse than he had expected. Zobayan also failed to file a backup flight plan before departing.
“The closer you get to the destination, the more you think just maybe you can pull this off,” Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said.
The agency also faulted Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.
Just before the crash, Zobayan told flight controllers he was climbing in the helicopter and had nearly broken through the clouds. But investigators said that the helicopter was in fact banking and beginning to descend quickly.
The aircraft had climbed sharply and nearly succeeded breaking through the fog and clouds when the helicopter made an abrupt left turn and plunged into grassy, oak studded hills in the city of Calabasas.
When it hit the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 184 mph and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute.
The impact caused a crater and scattered debris over an area the size of a football field. The victims died immediately.
There were 184 aircraft crashes between 2010-2019 involving spatial disorientation, including 20 fatal helicopter crashes, the safety board said.
Board member Michael Graham said Zobayan ignored his training and added 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?” Landsberg added.
The helicopter did not have so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required.
The safety board is an independent federal agency that investigates transportation-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.
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. Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California last year introduced the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act, which would direct the federal government to place those systems in all helicopters, CBS Los Angeles reports.
The helicopter that Bryant was flying in did not have the system, which the safety board has recommended as mandatory for helicopters. The aviation administration requires it only for air ambulances.
However, safety board investigator-in-charge Bill English said 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 made the warning system “a confusing factor,” English said.
“The pilot doesn’t know which way is up,” English said.
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 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 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.
Vanessa Bryant said Island Express Helicopters Inc. and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp., did not properly train or supervise Zobayan. She said the pilot was careless and negligent to fly in fog and should have aborted the flight.
Zobayan’s brother, Berge Zobayan, has said Kobe Bryant knew the risks of flying in a helicopter and that his survivors aren’t entitled to damages from the pilot’s estate. Island Express Helicopters Inc. denied responsibility and said the crash was “an act of God” that it could not control.
The company also countersued two air traffic controllers, saying the crash was caused by their “series of erroneous acts and/or omissions.”
Vanessa Bryant also sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, accusing deputies of sharing unauthorized photos of the crash site. California now has a state law prohibiting such conduct.