When helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan stumbled upon a bank of clouds and decided to climb out of it, he was likely worried about getting his star client, daughter Kobe Bryant and six others, to a girls basketball tournament.
That decision cost her her entire life, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday when it released the long-awaited results of the January 26, 2020 crash that killed all nine on board.
The NTSB primarily blamed Zobayan for a number of bad decisions that led him to fly blindly into a wall of cloud where he became so disoriented he thought he was climbing when the vehicle crashed on a hill in southern California.
Zobayan, a seasoned pilot, ignored his training and violated flight rules by flying in conditions he could not see and neglected to take alternative measures such as landing or switching to autopilot that would have averted the tragedy.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB, said the accident showed that even good pilots can make bad decisions.
“Here’s a case where a respected pilot appears to be in a very bad situation,” said Sumwalt. “The scenario that we think happened to be flying, he realizes that he’s kind of crammed in with visibility, and then he must have made the decision, ‘You know what, I’m just going to hit through these clouds and carry on up. ‘”
The board said it was likely that he was feeling pressure himself to get Bryant there. It’s not the first time investigators have seen this in celebrities. Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg cited separate plane crashes in which musicians Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Aaliyah were killed.
“In all of these cases, you are dealing with someone of great star power and pilots who are dying to do a good job for the customer,” said Landsberg. “In my opinion, the preponderance of evidence, let’s call it 51%, suggests that this pilot really wanted to go where he was going.”
The agency also blamed Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, for inadequate screening and monitoring of safety issues.
When Zobayan decided to climb above the clouds, he stepped into a trap that has made many flights fail. As soon as a pilot loses visual cues by flying in fog or darkness, the inner ear can send erroneous signals to the brain that lead to spatial disorientation. It is sometimes referred to as “the tilt,” which leads pilots to believe that they are flying planes straight and level when doing banking.
Zobayan radioed air traffic controllers he was just getting on when he was actually banking and descending quickly towards the steep hills near Calabasas, NTSB investigators concluded.
Zobayan flew under visual flight rules and had to be able to see where he was going. Flying to the cloud was a violation of that standard and likely resulted in his disorientation, the NTSB said.
Between 2010 and 2019, there were 184 spatial disorientation aircraft crashes, including 20 fatal helicopter crashes, according to the NTSB.
“What part of the cloud do pilots fail to understand when participating in a visual flight rules program?” Landsberg said.
NTSB member Michael Graham said Zobayan ignored his training, adding that a certain percentage would not get out alive as long as helicopter pilots continue to fly in clouds without relying on instruments, which requires a great deal of training.
Zobayan had been certified to fly only with instruments, but was no longer competent, said Sumwalt.
The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter was flying at a speed of 296 km / h and descending at a rate of more than 1,219 meters per minute as it slammed into the slope and ignited, spreading debris over an area the size of a soccer field . The victims died instantly.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and six others who had left Orange County that morning were on their way to his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County. The group had flown to the same destination the day before, and Zobayan had flown Bryant at least ten times on that route in 2019.
The plane itself had flown about two dozen times on largely direct routes between airports in Orange and Ventura counties since late 2018, data shows, but the pilot moved the helicopter further north because of poor visibility that day.
There was no sign of mechanical failure and the pilot was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, investigators said.
The helicopter did not have so-called “black box” recorders, which were not necessary to give the investigators a better understanding of what was happening.
The NTSB report reiterated a previous recommendation to require flight data and cockpit voice recorders for helicopters, but the agency is only investigating transport-related crashes. It has no enforcement powers and is required to send proposals to agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration or the Coast Guard, who have repeatedly declined some safety recommendations for the board following other transportation disasters.
The NTSB report is likely to feed into the litigation whether or not it is admissible in court, said Dallas attorney Michael Lyons.
The crash sparked lawsuits and counterclaims. Bryant’s widow sued Island Express and the pilot for wrongful death the day a massive public memorial was held almost a year ago at the Staples Center, where the Lakers all-star played.
Vanessa Bryant has sued Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp.. She said Zobayan was not properly trained or supervised and should have canceled the flight.
Zobayan’s brother, Berge Zobayan, said Kobe Bryant was aware of the risks of a helicopter flight and that his survivors were not eligible for damages from the pilot’s estate. Island Express Helicopters Inc. declined responsibility, saying the crash was “an act of God” that he could not control.
Berge Zobayan’s and Island Express lawyers declined to comment on the NTSB’s findings.
Families of other victims sued the helicopter companies, but not the pilot.
The others killed in the crash were 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.
The companies countered two FAA air traffic controllers, saying the crash was due to their “series of incorrect acts and / or omissions”.
While air traffic controllers failed to report loss of radar contact and communication with the flight, which was inconsistent with their procedures, it did not contribute to the crash, the NTSB said.