How did Kobe Bryant's chopper crash? Pilot blamed for not knowing 'which way was up' after flying into clouds

Zobayan, an experienced pilot, ignored his training, violated flight rules by flying into conditions during which he could not see, and failed to take alternate measures, according to an NTSB report


                            How did Kobe Bryant's chopper crash? Pilot blamed for not knowing 'which way was up' after flying into clouds
Kobe Bryant attends the LA Community Screening Of Warner Bros Pictures' 'Just Mercy' at Cinemark Baldwin Hills on January 06, 2020, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

The helicopter crash on January 26, 2020, that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant and six others, has been reportedly determined to have happened due to pilot Ara Zobayan's error.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) primarily blamed Zobayan and stated that he made a series of poor decisions that caused him to fly blind into a wall of clouds where disorientation made him think he was climbing when the helicopter was actually plunging toward a Southern California hillside.

Federal officials stated that Zobayan, an experienced pilot, ignored his training, violated flight rules by flying into conditions during which he could not see and failed to take alternate measures such as slowing down and landing or switching to autopilot, which may have averted the tragedy, according to an Associated Press report.

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The NTSB stated that Zobayan likely felt pressure to deliver his star client to Gianna's game at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy. Officials also believe that Zobayan may have felt "continuation bias", a term for the unconscious tendency among pilots to stick to the original plan despite changing conditions. NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said of this: "The closer you get to the destination the more you think just maybe you can pull this off."

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

The four-hour hearing presented the findings on the crash that led to the widespread mourning for Bryant and several lawsuits. The NTSB also faulted Island Express Helicopters Inc, which operated the aircraft for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.

According to the NTSB, when Zobayan decided to climb above the clouds, he entered a trap that doomed many flights. Once visual cues are lost when a pilot flies into fog or darkness, the inner ear can send erroneous signals to the brain that causes spatial disorientation, a phenomenon known as "the leans" which causes pilots to believe they are flying the aircraft straight and level, when, in fact, they are banking.

Zobayan had told air traffic controllers he was climbing, however, he was descending rapidly towards steep hills near Calabasas, according to NTSB's investigators. Under visual flight rules which Zobayan was flying under, he was required to be able to see where he was going. His decision to fly into the cloud was a violation of that standard and probably led to his disorientation, according to the NTSB.

According to the NTSB, there were 184 aircraft crashes involving spatial disorientation between 2010 and 2019, including 20 fatal helicopter crashes. Landsberg said, "What part of cloud, when you’re on a visual flight rules program, do pilots not understand?”

NTSB member Michael Graham said that Zobayan ignored his training and that as long as helicopter pilots continue flying into clouds without relying on instruments — which requires a high level of training, "a certain percentage aren't going to come out alive."

Kobe Bryant poses with his family at halftime after both his #8 and #24 Los Angeles Lakers jerseys are retired at Staples Center on December 18, 2017, in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images).

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said that Zobayan had been certified to fly using only instruments, but was no longer proficient. NTSB investigator-in-charge Bill English said that the Terrain Awareness and Warning System device — which was not on the helicopter and signals when the aircraft is in danger of crashing — would not have prevented the crash.

He said that the hilly terrain combined with the disorientation would have made the warning system a "confusing fact,", saying, "The pilot doesn't know which way is up."

The pilot had been flying the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter at about 184 miles per hour and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute when it crashed into a hillside and ignited, scattering debris over an area the size of a football field.

The victims included Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa, Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter's basketball team and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna's teammates.

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