The helicopter pilot involved in the crash which killed NBA icon Kobe Bryant and seven others including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna violated flight standards and was likely disoriented by thick cloud, safety officials said.
Investigators from the US National Transportation Safety Board concluded on Tuesday that Ara Zobayan, who was piloting the helicopter, was likely experiencing “spatial disorientation in limited visibility conditions” when he smashed into the hillside in Calabasas in January 2020.
NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said that Zobayan had been under VFR (visual flight rules) and violated safety rules when he decided to fly through the clouds while in that mode.
“He was flying under visual flight rules (VFR), which legally prohibited him from penetrating clouds,” Sumwalt said.
“However, he continued this VFR flight through the clouds, into instrument meterological conditions.”
At the hearing to ascertain the exact cause of the crash, the NTSB added that there was no evidence of pressure from Bryant for the pilot to continue with the flight despite the treacherous conditions.
“There was no evidence that Island Express, the air charter broker or the client [Bryant] placed pressure on the pilot to accept the charter flight request or complete the flight and adverse weather,” officials said.
The NTSB has said previously that there was no evidence of mechanical failure in the helicopter, which was a Sikorsky S-76B.
The helicopter did not have a ‘black-box’ recording device, as it was not required by law.
Zobayan was an experienced pilot who often flew Bryant, but he may have “misperceived” the angles at which he was descending and banking, ESPN reported the investigation as saying.
NTSB investigator-in-charge Bill English said the terrain, weather conditions and disorientation would have been “a confusing factor,” adding that “the pilot doesn’t know which way is up.”
Bryant and his daughter Gianna were killed alongside six others while traveling to a youth basketball tournament at the NBA icon’s Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on January 26 of last year when the fatal crash took place.
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, has said flight operator Express Helicopters Inc did not properly train or supervise Zobyan and that he was negligent to fly given the conditions.
The late pilot’s brother has dismissed those claims, asserting that Bryant knew the risks of helicopter travel.
Island Express Helicopters Inc. denied responsibility and dismissed calls for damages, claiming the crash was “an act of God” out of its control.
Bryant’s death at the age of 41 caused an outpouring of grief around the world. The anniversary of his passing was remembered at NBA games and other sporting events around the world last month.