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.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has
said eight deputies have admitted possessing photos of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter
The sheriff said he was “devastated and heartbroken” by the
conduct of those responsible.
He told media on March 2 that the deputies involved had deleted the images
on his direction.
Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine who died in
the crash on January 26.
The basketball legend was a
five-time NBA champion for his only team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and a double
Olympic gold medalist. After a 20-year career with the team Kobe Bryant retired
in April 2016.
The circulation of photos from the crash site and victims’ remains was first
reported by the Los Angeles Times
In response to the report, Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s wife, said she was
“absolutely devastated” by the “inexcusable and deplorable”
actions of first responders.
A lawyer for Vanessa Bryant said Alex Villanueva had assured her that
“all measures would be put in place to protect the families’
The lawyer’s statement said: “This
is an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect, and of the privacy
rights of the victims and their families.
“We are demanding that those
responsible for these alleged actions face the harshest possible discipline,
and that their identities be brought to light, to ensure that the photos are
not further disseminated.”
In an interview with NBC News, Sheriff Villanueva said the photos were
brought to his attention by someone who had overheard a trainee deputy
discussing them at a bar.
He said: “That was my number one
priority, to make sure those photos no longer exist.
“We identified the deputies
involved, they came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken
them and they had deleted them. And we’re content that those involved did
He also told KABC-TV that the deputies were under investigation and could
face disciplinary action.
Only personnel from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the
coroner’s office were authorized to take photos of the crash scene, Alex
According to NBC News, at least two LA County Fire Department firefighters
also took photos and were ordered to delete them.
The cause of the crash in foggy
weather west of Los Angeles, California, is still being investigated.
Kobe Bryant was on his way to coach
his daughter Gianna’s basketball team in a local youth tournament at the Mamba
Lawyers for Vanessa Bryant have filed a lawsuit against the company that operated the helicopter, accusing the pilot of negligence.
There has been no word yet on funeral arrangements.
The cause of the crash in foggy weather west of Los Angeles is still being
Kobe Bryant, 41, was on his way to coach his daughter’s basketball team in a
local youth tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy.
In the Instagram post, Vanessa Bryant also said: “We are completely devastated by the sudden loss of my adoring
husband, Kobe – the amazing father of our children; and my beautiful, sweet
Gianna – a loving, thoughtful, and wonderful daughter, and amazing sister to
Natalia, Bianka, and Capri.”
The devastated wife added: “I
wish they were here with us forever. They were our beautiful blessings taken
from us too soon. I’m not sure what our lives hold beyond today, and it’s
impossible to imagine life without them.”
Vanessa Bryant also thanked for the public support, and announced the formation
of a fund to help support the other families that were affected by the crash,
the Mamba Sports Foundation.
The other victims included the pilot, two other 13-year-old girls involved
in the tournament, three of their parents and another coach.
Kobe Bryant was a five-time NBA champion for his only team,
the Los Angeles Lakers, and a double Olympic gold medalist.
After a 20-year career with the team Kobe Bryant retired in April 2016.
The identities of the other victims
have not yet been released.
In a statement, the City of
Calabasas said it was “with great sadness that we learn of the death of
Kobe Bryant and four others in a helicopter crash”.
The statement added: “The aircraft went down in a remote
field off Las Virgenes around 10:00 this morning. Nobody on the ground was
Gavin Masak, who lives nearby, told
CBS News of the moment the helicopter crashed.
He said: “It wasn’t exactly like an explosion sound but it was like a loud
boom. It sounded like a helicopter, but it sounded like a jet, like it was
loud, so I went inside and told my dad what was happening. So when I came out I
saw smoke on the hill but it wasn’t like a big, black cloud of smoke, it was
Other eyewitnesses told celebrity
news site TMZ they heard the
helicopter’s engine sputtering before it went down.
The LA County Sheriff’s Department
shared pictures from the scene of the accident, showing a fire truck and smoke
emerging from the hills.
The FAA identified the crashed
helicopter as a Sikorsky S-76. It said it was investigating the accident
alongside the NTSB.
Officials are set to give further
details at a press conference at 2PM, local time.
Kobe Bryant played his entire
20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers. He retired in April 2016.
His achievements include being the
2008 NBA Most Valuable Player and two-time NBA Finals MVP.
Kobe Bryant was also two-time NBA scoring champion and a two-time Olympic champion.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.