Kobe Bryant’s helicopter pilot is believed to have become disoriented in the clouds in the moments leading up to the tragic crash which killed everyone onboard, according to accident investigators.
The basketball icon and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among the nine people killed on January 26th, 2020 when the aircraft they were traveling on slammed into a hillside in Calabasas, California in foggy conditions.
On Tuesday (February 9th), officials from the National Transportation and Safety Board held a public, live-streamed hearing to determine the likely cause of the accident, which they believe was caused after pilot Ara Zobayan lost control of the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter while flying through the clouds – a violation of federal aviation standards.
“(Zobayan) was flying under visual flight rules (VFR), which legally prohibited him from penetrating clouds,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said. “However, he continued this VFR flight through the clouds, into instrument meteorological conditions.”
His actions likely caused the pilot to experience a condition known as spatial disorientation, in which he “doesn’t know which way is up,” explained one investigator, noting Zobayan should have recognized the dangers posed by the weather conditions beforehand and turned the aircraft around to return safely to the nearby Van Nuys Airport, instead of pressing ahead with the journey.
Engine problems had previously been ruled out as a cause of the accident, and NTSB Investigator-in-Charge Bill English insisted the failures were the result of “the in-flight decisions, the pressing on at high speed”.
They also suggested Zobayan, who worked for Island Express Helicopters and had regularly flown Bryant and his family, likely put pressure on himself to get his passengers to their destination, and therefore ignored key safety rules which could have proved vital in the final moments before the crash.
NTSB representatives notably did not place the blame on aircraft operators at Island Express, who are being sued for wrongful death by the passengers’ families, including Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant. Those lawsuits were filed last year and are ongoing.