Findings from U.S. safety investigators reported Tuesday that a pilot flew through clouds in an apparent violation of federal standards and was likely disoriented right before the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other victims.
During a virtual meeting of the panel to issue its conclusions about the causes of the crash, Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said that pilot Ara Zobayan was “flying under visual flight rules, meaning he needed to be able to see where he was going.”
The NTSB hearing concentrated on establishing the highly anticipated probable cause of the tragedy.
“I think the whole world is watching because it’s Kobe,” Ed Coleman, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor and aircraft safety science expert, told AP.
On Jan. 26 of last year, Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, along with six additional passengers were on course from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament in Ventura County when thick fog emerged in their path in the San Fernando Valley.
The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter was steered to “climb sharply” and had almost made it past the clouds when the helicopter suddenly banked and lurched into the nearby hills, instantly killing all aboard before flames surrounded the debris. A “black box” recording device was not required and the helicopter did not have one. At the time, NTSB said that there was no indication of mechanical failure and the crash was thought to have been an accident.
NTSB have previously recommended mandatory Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems on helicopters, which indicate when an aircraft is at risk of crashing. However, the helicopter Bryant was in did not have the device.
On Tuesday, NTSB investigator-in-charge Bill English said that the system would probably not have made a difference in the fate of the helicopter ride. 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 added.
According to federal investigators, Zobayan, who was a skilled pilot who had flown Bryant many times previously, could possibly have “misperceived” the angles at which he was “descending and banking, which can happen when pilots become disoriented in low visibility.”
Zobayan was also condemned by investigators for banking to the left instead of climbing directly upward to escape the fog.
As a result of the crash, Zobayan’s estate and the company that owned the helicopter have been tied up in litigation with the families of the victims and sued by widow Vanessa Bryant for “alleged negligence and the wrongful deaths of her husband and daughter.”
Vanessa Bryant also took the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to court and alleged that deputies had disseminated unsanctioned crash site photos. California has since passed a state law forbidding that behavior.
Berge Zobayan, Zobayan’s brother, has said Bryant’s family does not have the right to request damages from the pilot’s estate. The company, Island Express Helicopters, said the crash was “an act of God,” and has placed fault on two FAA air traffic controllers who they are countersuing, saying their “series of erroneous acts and/or omissions” were responsible for the crash.