Ara Zobayan, the pilot of the helicopter which crashed killing Kobe Bryant, his young daughter, and seven other people had probably become disorientated amid fog, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators have said.
The helicopter smashed into a hillside near Calabasas, California, on January 26, 2020.
Ara Zobayan was among the dead.
Investigators also said the pilot may have felt “self-induced pressure” to complete the flight for Kobe Bryant.
The NTSB has been investigating the circumstances around the crash, and met on February 9 to vote on the probable cause. It is an independent federal agency with no enforcement powers.
In its official finding, the NTSB said the main cause of the crash was most likely the pilot’s decision to keep flying in inclement conditions, “which resulted in the pilot’s spatial disorientation and loss of control”.
During the flight, Ara Zobayan told air traffic controllers the helicopter was climbing out of heavy cloud when it was actually descending.
“This maneuver is consistent with the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation in limited visibility conditions,” said NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt.
“We are talking about spatial disorientation where literally the pilot may not know which way is up or down, whether he or she is leaning left or right.”
The NTSB added that “inadequate review and oversight” of safety management processes by the helicopter charter company, Island Express, may have also contributed to the crash.
However, the board did not find that the Sikorsky S-76B had experienced any mechanical problems. The helicopter was not required to have “black box” recorders, which capture flight data and voices in the cockpit, and was not carrying any.
Ara Zobayan violated federal rules and went against his own flight training by flying into thick clouds, safety officials said.
The pilot “was flying under visual flight orders or VFR which legally prohibited him from penetrating the clouds”, but he did so anyway, said Robert Sumwalt.
Investigators also criticized the pilot for banking the helicopter to the left, instead of bringing the aircraft straight up while trying to escape the bad weather.
Ara Zobayan was an experienced pilot who had often flown for Kobe Bryant. The widely respected pilot had logged more than 1,200 hours in the Sikorsky-76 helicopter.
Disorientation can set in when pilots can’t see the sky or landscape, making it harder to judge an aircraft’s altitude and acceleration.
Investigators also said that the close relationship between Kobe Bryant and Ara Zobayan may have compelled the pilot to fly even in unsafe conditions.
In text messages on the eve of the crash released by the NTSB, Ara Zobayan wrote that the forecast seemed to be “not the best”. The next morning, the pilot wrote that the conditions were “looking ok”.
At the time of the crash, retired NBA legend Kobe Bryant, 41, was travelling to a youth basketball tournament with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, two of her teammates, and several other friends.
The fatal crash prompted a global outpouring of support for Kobe Bryant’s family – as well as a number of lawsuits.
Kobe Bryant’s wife, Vanessa Bryant, sued Ara Zobayan and the companies that owned and operated the helicopter for alleged negligence and wrongful death. Families of the other victims sued the helicopter companies – but not the pilot.
In September, Vanessa Bryant sued the LA County Sheriff’s Department after officers shared unauthorized photos of the crash site. California now has a state law prohibiting first responders from taking unauthorized pictures of people who died at the scene of an accident or crime.