Federal safety officials on Tuesday said the pilot flying Kobe Bryant’s helicopter violated federal standards by flying through clouds, likely making him disoriented right before crashing into a hillside near Calabasas, California. The crash killed Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and 7 others aboard the helicopter on January 26, 2020.
During a virtual meeting on Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board said “spatial disorientation” is what likely led to pilot Ara Zobayan crashing. Zobayan was “flying under flight orders, or VFR, which legally prohibit him from penetrating the clouds,” according to NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, but the pilot continued to fly into clouds. The agency last June said Zobayan told air traffic controllers his helicopter was climbing above heavy clouds when it was actually descending rapidly.
The federal investigators said Zobayan likely “misperceived” his descent, which they said can happen when a pilot is confused in low visibility. The investigators also criticized Zobayan for banking to the left, rather than ascending straight up through the clouds to get above bad weather.
“I am saddened by this crash. We use the term crash rather than accident but I think it is rather important to understand the distinction,” NSTB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said. “An accident is something unforeseen, unpredictable. Unfortunately this wasn’t. We know what happened and we have a very good idea of why it happened and we absolutely know how to prevent these crashes.”
A “black box” recording device, which are not required for such flights, was not onboard. A Terrain Awareness and Warning System, which helps signal when a helicopter is close to crashing, was also not included on the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter.
The NSTB, which is an independent federal agency with no enforcement powers, will most likely make nonbinding recommendations based on the crash.
Bryant, his daughter and several others onboard had departed from Orange County en route to a basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on the morning of the crash. The helicopter dealt with heavy fog upon reaching the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
Beyond Bryant, his daughter and Zobayan, the six others who died in the crash were: 56-year-old John Altobelli, his 46-year-old wife Keri, and their 14-year-old daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, 38; and 45-year-old Sarah Chester and her daughter, 13-year-old Payton.
Last February, on the morning a memorial service was held in Bryant’s honor at Staples Center, his wife Vanessa Bryant sued Zobayan and the companies that owned the helicopter, claiming negligence and wrongful deaths. Other families have sued the companies tied to the helicopter but not the pilot’s family, according to the Associated Press.
“Vanessa Bryant said Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, 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.”