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Pilot in Kobe Bryant crash likely had 'spatial disorientation'; NTSB calls for training, recording

Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant
Posted at 7:27 AM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-09 15:36:12-05

LOS ANGELES — A year after NBA star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash, the NTSB decided Tuesday the cause was poor decisions by the pilot.

The pilot made a key error by flying through thick clouds that ended up disorienting him, U.S. safety officials said Tuesday during a hearing aimed at pinpointing probable causes of the crash.

The NTSB also made recommendations to prevent accidents in the future, including pilot training in changing weather situations, implementing safety management systems at helicopter operators, and installing recording devices on board to capture audio and video from the cockpit.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Tuesday that pilot Ara Zobayan was flying under visual flight rules, which means he needed to be able to see where he was going.

Zobayan told flight controllers the aircraft was climbing sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter instead was descending, banked abruptly and plunged into the hills below, killing himself and all 8 passengers.

Thick fog north of Los Angeles was noted by several witnesses in the area of the crash at the time. 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, NTSB board members said.

Bryant and the others were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on Jan. 26, 2020.

The NTSB had found there was "no evidence that Island Express, the air charter broker or the client (Kobe Bryant) placed pressure on the pilot to accept" the flight or to complete the flight. Island Express is the helicopter operator who the pilot worked for.

The agency also said actions by air traffic controllers was "inconsistent" with procedures, but did not cause the crash.

"Although the air traffic controllers failures to report the loss of radar contact and radar communication with the flight was inconsistent with air traffic control procedures, this deficiency did not contribute to the accident or affect survivability," reads the findings adopted by the NTSB.

However, the agency discussed the possibility the pilot's decisions were clouded by "self-induced pressure" because of the celebrity status of the passenger(s) and the flight plan.

"The pilot's decision to continue the flight into deteriorating weather conditions was likely influenced by a self-induced pressure to fulfill the clients travel needs, his (the pilot's) lack of an alternative plan, and the plan continuation bias which strengthened as the flight neared the destination," reads the official findings adopted by the NTSB Tuesday.

The helicopter did not have the so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required. The helicopter reportedly had one initially installed by the manufacturer, however it was removed by Island Express as they made modifications to the interior, as allowed by FAA regulation. Officials have earlier said there was no sign of mechanical failure, and they believe the crash was accidental.

Investigators told the board Tuesday they believe this is a situation where “good people can make a bad decision, and we need to figure out why.”

The board turned their attention to safety management systems for similar helicopters and operators, and possibly creating redundancy in the system to make sure when such "bad decisions" are made, they are caught and stopped.