Calabasas, CA

Investigators Reveal Cause Of Kobe Bryant's Helicopter Crash

Matt Lillywhite

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Federal regulators said Tuesday that the pilot of a helicopter that crashed into a foggy Calabasas hillside a year ago, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others on board, should not have flown into cloudy weather where he became disoriented.

On Jan. 26, 2020, during a flight from Orange County to Camarillo, the National Transportation Safety Board said pilot Ara Zobayan experienced spatial disorientation as he navigated across clouds and fog-covered terrain.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Zobayan flew under the principles of visual flight, but the "pilot continued his flight into clouds." Zobayan was "legally forbidden" from flying under cloud cover, but Sunwalt said he did so anyway.

When it crashed into the hillside between Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street at 9:45 am, the Sikorsky helicopter was not in a managed flight pattern.

NTSB member Michael Graham said Zobayan skipped his training, adding that "a certain percentage will not come out alive" as long as helicopters manage to ride into the clouds using visual flight rules.

The Sikorsky that Bryant was flying on did not have such devices, prompting prior suggestions from the NTSB that helicopters be equipped with crash-proof flight and voice recorders. Such features were not needed on the helicopter by the Federal Aviation Agency, nor was a safety management system required.

Investigator Bill English told the board that Zobayan advised air traffic control that to get above the clouds, he was "climbing to 4,000 feet." But English said the pilot had spatial disorientation because, when speaking with the controller that it had descended, the helicopter banked to the left, away from the 101 Freeway.

According to Dr. Dujuan Sevillian, Zoboyan misinterpreted altitude and acceleration and experienced what is known as a somatogravic distortion. He said the chopper's acceleration could lead a pilot to sense that the aircraft was ascending when it was not.

"Our inner ear can give us a false sense of orientation," Sevillian said, adding that the issue is compounded by a lack of visual signals when being surrounded by clouds, and the pilot experiences what is known as the "leans."

Shortly after 9 am, Bryant and his daughter Gianna took off, along with some of her teammates, a few parents, and coaches. For the second day of a weekend tournament at Mamba Academy in nearby Thousand Oaks, from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, going to Camarillo Airport.

Christina Mauser; Payton and Sarah Chester; John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli; and Zobayan were killed in the accident. The investigators were informed by a witness on a mountain bike path in Calabasas that the area was shrouded by mist and that he heard the sound of a helicopter and saw a white and blue chopper emerging from the clouds. Investigators from the NTSB noticed that public images and photographs showed fog and low clouds obscuring the hilltops.

NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said in the days after the crash that a terrain awareness system, or TAWS, may have provided Zobayan with more detail, though she did not specify if it could have stopped the deadly crash. However, Sumwalt said Tuesday that the helicopter was not in a controlled flight, and provided that the pilot was disoriented, he may not have been assisted by a terrain awareness device.

Thirteen factual observations were made by the NTSB board, including the lack of visual parallels in the clouds by the pilot, a bad judgment to fly at excessive airspeed, and spatial disorientation.

The pilot's decision to fly that morning was "likely" to be motivated by self-induced pressure from his relationship with Kobe Bryant was also noted. Vice President Bruce Landsberg said there was a long tradition of pilots unsuccessfully attempting to satisfy a star's expectations, pointing to past accidents that killed recording stars such as Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Aaliyah, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

The night before the crash, the broker coordinating the flight had voiced fears to the pilot that "weather could be a problem." According to text messages released by the NTSB, Zobayan told the broker the next morning that it "should be OK."

In its conclusions Tuesday, the board also said that Island Express, the helicopter operator, may have helped with a fully integrated safety management system and that crash-proof flight data recorders may have provided crucial information.

However, investigators said none of the air traffic controllers' actions contributed to the crash, and they dismissed Island Express' recommendations to that effect. The FAA has been sued by Island Express, alleging air traffic controllers were to blame for the accident.

Photo by Keith Allison, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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