February 27, 2021

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Pilot in Kobe Bryant crash violated flight standards, likely became disoriented, NTSB investigators say

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National Transportation Safety Board investigators said Tuesday that evidence suggests the pilot in the helicopter crash involving NBA star Kobe Bryant might have become spacially disoriented in poor weather.

In prepared opening remarks at a board meeting Tuesday morning, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt noted that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, had violated flight standards.

“He was flying under visual flight rules (VFR), which legally prohibited him from penetrating clouds,” Sumwalt said. “However, he continued this VFR flight through the clouds, into instrument meterological conditions.”

The NTSB scheduled Tuesday’s meeting to adopt a final report on the crash, including a determination of probable cause.

The NTSB had not announced the probable cause as of 11 a.m. ET Tuesday morning.

Fans gather at L.A. Live to pay their respects to former Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who died along with seven other people in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020.

Experts and investigative records had long pointed to spatial disorientation as a possible contributing factor in the crash. NTSB invstigators said Tuesday that from 2010 to 2019, it found 194 fatal aircraft accidents related to spatial disorientation.

The NTSB’s long-awaited board meeting comes a little more than a year after the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter crashed into the hills near Calabasas, California on Jan. 26, 2020.

KOBE BRYANT REMEMBERED:Read our series looking back a year after the deadly crash

All nine people on board died in the crash, including Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; Christina Mauser, an assistant coach; and Zobayan, the pilot. The group had been traveling to Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game. 

Bryant, who was 41, had become well-known for traveling by helicopter both during his NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers and in retirement. He viewed it as a way to avoid the oft-gridlocked traffic in Los Angeles and the surrounding area. He had previously flown in the aircraft that crashed, and traveled regularly with Zobayan.

The NTSB, a government agency tasked with investigating transporation accidents, began looking into the crash shortly after it occurred. Investigators conducted nearly two dozen interviews and collected more than 1,800 pages of evidence, including weather analyses, maintenance records, training logs, witness reports and emails. 

The NTSB even pulled video footage from cameras that had been stationed behind youth baseball fields in the area, in an effort to determine visibility that morning.

The basic facts of the flight came together quickly: The aircraft departed John Wayne-Orange County Airport just after 9 a.m. local time, flew north, circled to make way for air traffic at a nearby airport and then followed a highway into the hills near Calabasas. It was a foggy morning, and as the helicopter entered more variable terrain, Zobayan informed air traffic controllers that he would climb to a higher altitude to get above the clouds. Instead, the helicopter banked left and sped toward the ground.

Within weeks of the crash, the NTSB had recovered the helicopter’s engines and determined there was no evidence of catastrophic engine failure. Instead, the bulk of the investigation focused on the weather and the actions of the pilot.

As the NTSB’s investigation continued, a separate process has played out in federal and state courts, where the victims’ families have filed a series of lawsuits against the helicopter company, Island Express Helicopters, and, in some cases, Zobayan’s estate. The helicopter company has since countersued the air traffic controllers who were on duty that day, in what experts believe is an effort to spread liability.

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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