The charter pilot who was flying basketball star Kobe Bryant last year failed to follow his training and kept going despite deteriorating weather only to become disoriented in clouds and crash the helicopter, killing all aboard, investigators said Tuesday.
Pilot Ara Zobayan was trained to climb straight up if he encountered clouds, but instead got disoriented and turned sharply, U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigators said as they prepared to conclude the cause of the Jan. 26, 2020, crash.
“He didn’t even follow the training,” NTSB board member Thomas Chapman said.
Zobayan apparently fell prey to a widely known hazard in aviation: a pilot who is tricked into thinking he or she is flying level when they are in fact turning or diving. The Sikorsky S-76B slammed into the base of a hillside, killing Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other people.
The NTSB also identified numerous factors that helped lead to the crash. Zobayan had an opportunity to land at nearby airports, but passed that up in spite of knowing that clouds were shrouding nearby hills. The charter company, Island Express Helicopters Inc., didn’t have a rigorous internal safety program.
And even though the helicopter could fly in clouds, the company wasn’t permitted to do so and it had been months since Zobayan had practiced that type of flying.
The S-76B is equipped with a sophisticated autopilot that the pilot could have programmed to help fly in the clouds, but it apparently wasn’t activated.
The vast majority of helicopter charter flights are conducted under what are known as visual flight rules — the pilots must be able to navigate by seeing the ground. They can be safe, but risks go up sharply if weather deteriorates and pilots enter clouds, investigators said.
In Zobayan’s case, he had been certified by FAA to fly on instruments, but it wasn’t clear he had performed the necessary work to remain legal do to so, investigators said.
The NTSB will vote on the cause of the crash and issue recommendations later on Tuesday. The safety board is expected to call for better internal safety programs at charter operators, more requirements for flight recorders and adding better monitoring of flights using modern data monitoring.
While investigators didn’t find hard evidence that Zobayan was pressured to continue the flight, they said his actions were consistent with someone who had “self-induced” pressure. He had become close to Bryant and may have wanted to ensure he got to his daughter’s basketball game.
The company could have relieved that pressure if it had done more planning before the flight, so that he could have landed at an alternate airport and alternate transportation was arranged, investigators said.
About the photo: Wreckage of the crashed helicopter that was carrying former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna smolders on the ground on January 26, 2020 in Calabasas, California. According to reports, five people including Bryant and his daughter have been confirmed killed in the crash. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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