The helicopter pilot who crashed into a Southern California hillside last year, killing Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers, went against his training and violated flight rules by flying into thick clouds, U.S. safety officials said Tuesday during a hearing aimed at pinpointing probable causes of the crash. Pilot Ara Zobayan likely became so disoriented that he could not discern up from down, investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board concluded.
The agency criticized 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. Zobayan was among the nine people killed, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
How to watch the NTSB meeting on the Kobe Bryant crash today
- What: The National Transportation Safety Board holds a public board meeting on the probable cause of the fatal helicopter crash near Calabasas, California.
- Date: Tuesday, February 9, 2021
- Time: Board meeting started at 9:30 a.m. ET; NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt holds a virtual media availability at 2 p.m. ET to answer questions about the meeting, the NTSB’s investigation and safety recommendations issued by the board.
- Location: Virtual
- Online stream: Live on CBSN in the player above and on your mobile or streaming device
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 January 26, 2020, crash, Zobayan told flight controllers he was climbing in the helicopter and had nearly broken through the clouds.
But investigators with the safety agency 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 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 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 Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg.
Tuesday’s meeting 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, 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 safety board said previously. The helicopter did not have so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required.
The 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.
Following the wreck, there has been a push to require all helicopters that carry six or more people have Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems, something which was not present on Bryant’s helicopter. Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman last year introduced the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act, which would direct the Federal Aviation Administration and the safety board to place those systems in all helicopters, CBS Los Angeles reports.
However, 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 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.
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.
Along with the 41-year-old Kobe and Gianna, also killed in the crash were 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.
Note: Streaming plans are subject to change