Pilot in Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash Violated Safety Rules

The helicopter pilot likely became disoriented as he flew passengers through poor weather — a violation of safety standards, according to investigators.

FILE – In this July 26, 2018, file photo, former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine, Calif. Federal safety officials are expected to vote Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, on what likely caused the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others to crash into a Southern California hillside last year, killing all aboard. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, file)

(CN) — The National Transportation Safety Board determined Tuesday that the pilot in the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others likely became spatially unaware as he flew through low clouds and into a Southern California hillside.

The flight likely violated safety regulations, the investigators said.

Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna died with seven other passengers and the pilot when their helicopter slammed into a hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains on a foggy Jan. 26 morning in Calabasas, California. The group had been headed to a youth basketball practice.

The helicopter carrying the group encountered a hilly area with thick cloud cover moments before the aircraft was set to arrive at Bryant’s training facility. 

The NTSB said in a meeting Tuesday pilot Ara Zobayan indicated to air traffic controllers before the crash he was trying to climb above the clouds when his flight instruments showed he was rapidly descending.

The error in the pilot’s reporting showed he experienced “spatial disorientation” during the flight, the NTSB said in announcing the probable cause of the crash.

According to NTSB staff, 194 fatal aircraft accidents that occurred between 2010 and 2019 were found to be related to spatial disorientation.

NTSB members also determined Zobayan’s “self-induced pressure” to complete the flight and his desire to fulfill the needs of the Los Angeles Lakers legend and his party shaped his decision to continue the flight. That pressure along with Zobayan’s lack of an alternate plan led to the crash, according to the federal agency assigned to investigate transportation accidents.

Investigators noted evidence showing Zobayan had previously canceled flights due to poor weather and had even sent screenshots of weather reports to flight operators.

The safety regulators have not determined an exact cause of the crash, in part because the helicopter Zobayan was piloting lacked a flight tracking recorder that would’ve provided precise data on the flight.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said he hopes the board’s findings will lead to better training for pilots and the installation of flight data monitoring devices and cameras on helicopters.

“Our hope is the findings would result in research on spatial disorientation simulation devices,” Sumwalt said. “The actions on the recommendations today will move us forward now.”

In prepared remarks, Sumwalt offered condolences to the families of the victims of the crash.

“On behalf of all of us at the NTSB, I offer our sincerest condolences to the family and friends of all those who were lost in the crash,” Sumwalt said. “Please understand that the reason for our investigation of this tragedy, and thus for today’s meeting, is to learn from this tragic accident, to prevent the same thing from happening again.”

In a statement following the NTSB meeting, Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said the crash shows the need to update federal helicopter safety regulations. 

“We must work to prevent tragic accidents like the 2020 crash that killed nine passengers including Kobe and Gianna Bryant, and I believe requiring flight recorders and terrain awareness systems will make flights like these safer,” Feinstein said. “The NTSB stood by its longstanding recommendations today and I urge the Senate to hold hearings on and mark up my bill making this safety equipment mandatory before more lives are lost.”

This year, Feinstein and other Democratic senators introduced the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act, which would require flight recorders — so-called “black boxes” — and terrain awareness technology aboard all helicopters carrying six or more passengers.

In a preliminary probe last year following the crash, NTSB investigators said the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter piloted by Zobayan was not equipped with terrain awareness technology.

The initial NTSB investigation found no signs of engine failure after combing through debris.

Island Express, the flight operator, lacked a clear policy ensuring pilots had completed preflight training on risk analysis tools aboard aircrafts, the NTSB said Tuesday.

The company faces a lawsuit from Bryant’s widow Vanessa who claims Zobayan’s negligence caused the crash and that the company breached its duty to ensure the helicopter was flight-ready. The lawsuit also claims Zobayan — who regularly piloted Kobe Bryant’s helicopter trips — flew directly into unsafe weather conditions and was authorized to do so by the helicopter company.

Zobayan had previously been disciplined by the Federal Aviation Administration for flying into crowded airspace near Los Angeles International Airport in 2015.

The other passengers who died in the flight were Payton Chester and her mother, Sarah Chester; Jon, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; and Christina Mauser.

Bryant’s death spurred an extended period of mass mourning in Los Angeles.

A memorial at the Staples Center, the home of the Lakers, attracted thousands of fans and former and current NBA players including Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Dwyane Wade.

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