Pilot disorientation, flight rule violations blamed for crash that killed Kobe Bryant: NTSB

AMANDA MAILE, MINA KAJI and ALEX STONE
·3 min read

Federal investigators said Tuesday the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter and six others last January crashed when the pilot became disoriented after flying in thick fog.

The pilot did not follow training, violated visual flight rules and was unable to differentiate between up and down, investigators found.

The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was flying under Visual Flight Rules, meaning he needed full visibility. Instead of diverting the Jan. 26, 2020, flight to a nearby airport, Zobayan continued the flight into dense clouds, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said. The investigators said he tried to climb out of the cloud cover but instead turned left and descended, slamming the helicopter into nearby hills.

Bryant and their close family friends were headed to a basketball game at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy on the day of the crash.

PHOTO: Gianna Bryant and her father, former NBA player Kobe Bryant, attend the WNBA All-Star Game 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, July 27, 2019, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Gianna Bryant and her father, former NBA player Kobe Bryant, attend the WNBA All-Star Game 2019 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, July 27, 2019, in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images, FILE)

Zobayan had been employed by Island Express Helicopters since 2011, logging about 8,500 hours of pilot-flying time. He had been flying in the area of the crash for a decade and often flew Kobe Bryant.

PHOTO: Investigators work at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, 13, Jan. 27, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif. (James Anderson/National Transportation Safety Board via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Investigators work at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, 13, Jan. 27, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif. (James Anderson/National Transportation Safety Board via Getty Images, FILE)

MORE: A look back at the victims in the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash

Zobayan reportedly told air traffic control they were "climbing" to 4,000 feet, when in reality the aircraft was falling, according to the NTSB.

“The scenario we believe happened is that he is flying along, he realizes he's getting boxed in with visibility, and he must have made the decision that I'm going to punch up through these clouds and get on top,” NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

MORE: Fog may have disoriented pilot in helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, 8 others: NTSB

Board members said the crash could have been prevented and the pilot “went contrary to his training.”

PHOTO: Investigators work at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, 13, Jan. 27, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif. (James Anderson/National Transportation Safety Board via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Investigators work at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, 13, Jan. 27, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif. (James Anderson/National Transportation Safety Board via Getty Images, FILE)

The Los Angeles Police Department had grounded its own fleet of helicopters the morning of the crash due to poor visibility. One eyewitness described the fog as "like jumping into a pool of milk."

Zobayan sent a text message the morning of the crash, saying, “Weather looking ok” after expressing concerns the day before that the flight may not take off due to poor conditions. Zobayan frequently piloted flights for Bryant and "likely did not want to disappoint him" the NTSB said. Despite this, the agency said Zobayan was not pressured to conduct the flight by neither Island Express nor his client.

The helicopter involved in the crash was a Sikorsky S-76B owned and operated by Island Express. It was not equipped with a flight-data recorder nor a cockpit voice recorder, both of which were not required.

PHOTO: Vanessa Bryant speaks during The Celebration of Life for Kobe & Gianna Bryant at Staples Center, Feb. 24, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Vanessa Bryant speaks during The Celebration of Life for Kobe & Gianna Bryant at Staples Center, Feb. 24, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images, FILE)

MORE: Investigators analyzing video that captures sound of Kobe Bryant helicopter crash

The agency disclosed that the engines were working at the time of impact and there appeared to be no mechanical issues with the chopper.

There were 184 aircraft crashes from 2010 to 2019 from spatial disorientation -- 20 of them were fatal helicopter crashes, the NTSB said.

The crash has led to a slew of lawsuits including one from Vanessa Bryant in February 2020 against the pilot and the company that owned the helicopter for negligence and wrongful deaths. Families of the other victims have sued the helicopter company.

Island Express did not immediately respond to request for comment.

ABC News' Sam Sweeney contributed to this report.

Pilot disorientation, flight rule violations blamed for crash that killed Kobe Bryant: NTSB originally appeared on abcnews.go.com