The pilot who crashed the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, killing all nine aboard, made a series of poor decisions causing the crash, federal safety officials said Tuesday. Those decisions led him to fly blindly into a wall of clouds where he became so disoriented he thought he was climbing when the craft was plunging toward a Southern California hillside.
The National Transportation Safety Board primarily blamed Ara Zobayan in the Jan. 26, 2020 crash that killed him and all the other passengers, including Bryant's daughter.
Zobayan, an experienced pilot, ignored his training, violated flight rules by flying into conditions where he couldn’t see and failed to take alternate measures, such as slowing down and landing or switching to auto-pilot, that would have averted the tragedy. The NTSB said it was likely he felt pressure to deliver his star client to his daughter’s game.
The agency announced the long-awaited findings during a four-hour hearing pinpointing probable causes of what went awry in the 40-minute flight. The crash led to widespread public mourning for the retired basketball star, several lawsuits and prompted state and federal legislation.
The agency also faulted Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.
When Zobayan decided to climb above the clouds, he entered a trap that has doomed many flights. Once a pilot loses visual cues by flying into fog or darkness, the inner ear can send erroneous signals to the brain that causes spatial disorientation. It’s sometimes known as “the leans,” causing pilots to believe they are flying aircraft straight and level when they are banking.
NTSB member Michael Graham said Zobayan ignored his training and added that 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.”
The crash generated lawsuits and countersuits, with Bryant’s widow suing Island Express and the pilot for wrongful death.
Vanessa Bryant said Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp., did not properly train or supervise Zobayan. She said the pilot was careless and negligent to fly in fog and should have aborted the flight.
Zobayan’s brother, Berge Zobayan, has said Kobe Bryant knew the risks of flying in a helicopter and that his survivors aren’t entitled to damages from the pilot’s estate. Island Express Helicopters Inc. denied responsibility and said the crash was “an act of God” that it could not control.
A lawyer for Berge Zobayan, Arthur Willner, said they had no comment on the NTSB findings. Laywers for Island Express did not immediately return messages seeking comment.