LOS ANGELES (CBSLA/AP) – Federal authorities reported Tuesday that the pilot was likely at fault for the January 2020 helicopter crash which killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.
The pilot flew the helicopter through the clouds — in an apparent violation of federal standards — and likely became disoriented just before the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board found.
In a public meeting Tuesday morning, the NTSB determined poor visibility probably led 50-year-old pilot Ara Zobayan to become so disoriented in thick fog that he could not perceive up from down.
The five board members also said Zobayan ignored his training and violated federal regulations during the 40-minute flight.
“The pilot was either not referencing the helicopter’s instruments, or having difficulty interpreting, or believing them, due to the compelling vestibular illusions, and he did not successfully recover the helicopter,” the NTSB investigators told the board in their presentation.
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.
“The pilot communicated with air traffic control on numerous occasions, but did not declare an emergency,” they said. “The excessive speed entering the cloud, the rapid rate of climb and the left turn were inconsistent with his training.”
Investigators learned that Bryant and Zobayan were longtime friends, and said that friendship could have potentially prompted Zobayan to feel pressured to take flying risks.
“That type of relationship that they had was very close,” NTSB human performance investigator Dr. Dejuan Sevillian told the board Tuesday. “When we look at human factor psychology, we look at the decisions people make based off of the perception of the situation. In this case, the pilot, as he was flying enroute, this type of relationship that he had with the client, can lead to self-induced pressure during the interlude portion of the flight.”
Board members, in a unanimous vote, cited the self-induced pressure Zobayan likely felt to finish the flight for his star client.
“The closer you get to the destination, the more you think just maybe you can pull this off,” NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg added.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that Zobayan was flying under visual flight rules, which meant that he needed to be able to see where he was going. Zobayan become disoriented, believing he was ascending above the fog when he was actually descending before slamming into a hillside. It’s a situation known as pilot spatial disorientation.
“Literally the pilot may not know which way is up or down, whether he or she is leaning left or right,” Sumwalt said.
Zobayan piloted the aircraft to climb sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Calabasas hills below, killing all aboard.
The helicopter also did not have the so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required.
The investigation found that Zobayan did not create a backup flight plan, like landing in Van Nuys. The board also said Zobayan should have relied on his instruments instead of what he could or could not see.
The agency also faulted Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.
On the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter carrying nine people had departed from John Wayne Airport in Orange County and was bound for Camarillo, with the passengers on board heading to Kobe’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where Kobe was set to coach Gianna in a tournament game.
However, the helicopter crashed in Calabasas amid heavy fog.
Zobayan was the chief pilot for Island Express, and had been flying in the area for 10 years. But investigators said the evidence indicated that he failed to strictly follow the aircraft’s instruments and his training and did not appear to have a backup plan in the event that he couldn’t complete the flight.
An 11-page preliminary report from the NTSB released about two weeks after the crash found no evidence of engine failure. Tuesday’s final report also found no mechanical difficulties on the Sikorsky helicopter that would have contributed to the crash.
In the days following the crash, an NTSB official leveled criticism at the FAA because the helicopter did not have a black box. Under FAA regulations, almost all planes are required to have black boxes, but not helicopters.
Zobayan had 8,200 hours of flight experience. The helicopter, manufactured in 1991, had logged 4,761 hours in the air and its maintenance and inspection records were all up to date, the NTSB found.
Documents the NTSB made public in June of last year supported the theory that Zobayan may have become disoriented while flying through heavy fog.
Following the wreck, there has been a push to require all helicopters which carry six or more people have terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS), something which was not present on Kobe’s helicopter. U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) last year introduced the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act, which would direct the FAA and NTSB to place TAWS systems in all helicopters.
Along with the 41-year-old Kobe and his daughter Gianna, also killed in the crash was 56-year-old John Altobelli, a longtime coach of the Orange Coast College baseball team, his 46-year-old wife Keri and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa, who was a teammate of Gianna’s.
Sarah Chester, 45, and her 13-year-old daughter Payton, who also played with Gianna, died as well, along with 38-year-old Christina Mauser, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches on the Mamba Academy team.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this report.)