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.
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 Jan. 26, 2020 crash, Zobayan told flight controllers he was climbing in the helicopter and had nearly broken through the clouds.
But NTSB investigators 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 was 184 aircraft crashes between 2010-2019 involving spatial disorientation, including 20 fatal helicopter crashes, the NTSB said.
NTSB 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 NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg.
Tuesday’s federal hearing 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 on Jan. 26, 2020, 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 National Transportation Safety Board said previously. The helicopter did not have so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required.
The board during its hearing that is likely to make nonbinding recommendations to prevent future crashes.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates transportation-related crashes but has no enforcement powers.