The helicopter pilot who crashed into a Southern California hillside last year, killing Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers, went against his training and violated flight rules by flying into thick clouds, US safety officials said Tuesday during a hearing aimed at pinpointing probable causes of the crash.
Pilot Ara Zobayan likely became so disoriented that he could not discern up from down, investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board concluded.
The agency criticised Zobayan’s decision to fly into the clouds, saying he violated federal standards that required him to be able to see where he was going before the helicopter crashed during a roughly 40-minute flight. Zobayan was among the nine people killed, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
The pilot went against his training by becoming spatially disoriented in thick clouds, a condition that can happen to pilots in low visibility, when they cannot tell up from down or discern which way an aircraft is banking, board members said.
Just before the Jan. 26, 2020 crash, Zobayan told flight controllers he was climbing in the helicopter and had nearly broken through the clouds.
But NTSB investigators said the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter was in fact banking and beginning to descend at increasing magnitude, investigators said.
They also said that Zobayan did not file a backup flight plan and chose not to land at a nearby local airport to wait out the bad weather.
There was 184 aircraft crashes between 2010-2019 involving spatial disorientation, including 20 fatal helicopter crashes, the NTSB said.
Bryant, Gianna and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on Jan. 26, 2020, when the helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.