Basketball legend Kobe Bryant’s helicopter pilot pushed the limits of bad weather flying rules, and ultimately abandoned his training as he became disoriented in the clouds and crashed into a Southern California hillside last year, investigators said Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigators described the crash as preventable, the pilot as experienced, and his employer as a generally safe charter operation. The board officially attributed the January 26, 2020, crash that killed Bryant, his daughter, the pilot, and six others to the pilot’s decision to continue the flight despite the weather.
“Even good pilots can end up in bad situations,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
Sumwalt described the crash as entirely preventable, saying the helicopter could have landed at a nearby airport — one was about 12 miles away — or even in a parking lot “all the way up to the point where [the pilot] entered the clouds.”
The board recommended federal policy changes that, if adopted, could have a long-lasting impact on charter flight safety. In addition to recommending more helicopters carry so-called black boxes — the flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders — the board recommended increased safety training for helicopter pilots on how to avoid inadvertently flying into clouds.
The responsibility then falls to regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as helicopter charter companies and pilots, to act on the recommendations. Sumwalt told CNN at a news conference following the meeting that he and his colleagues “will continue to push like crazy to get those recommendations implemented.”
The FAA responded with a statement saying it “takes NTSB recommendations very seriously and will respond preliminarily to them within 90 days.”
The crashed helicopter, investigators said, did not carry data or voice recorders and was not required to. The helicopter was manufactured with a recorder but its owner, Island Express, removed the device.
“We use the term crash rather than accident,” NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said. “An accident (is) just something that’s unforeseen, unpredictable, if you will. Unfortunately this wasn’t.”
In the meeting, investigators said Island Express pilot Ara Zobayan may have felt pressure to perform for a high-profile client and continued flying into deteriorating weather conditions. Zobayan developed a “very close” friendship with Bryant, investigator Dujuan Sevillian said, a type of relationship that “can lead to self induced pressure” to fly in risky conditions.
NTSB board member Thomas Chapman pushed back on officially concluding that pressure played a role in the crash, although he acknowledged pilots may contend with a “tendency to want to please” the influential person who charters their services.
A representative for Zobayan’s estate did not comment when contacted by CNN on Tuesday.
The investigators said said he climbed into what witnesses described as a “wall of cloud,” possibly became disoriented, and unconsciously turned into a cloud-obscured hillside he knew was there. Pilots call that type of confusion spacial disorientation.
“It’s not like … the pilot was flying along, didn’t know where the hills are and blundered into the side of a hill,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
Island Express declined to comment to CNN on Tuesday.
Investigators said the helicopter was equipped to fly into clouds with the pilot operating solely in reference to the instruments — known as Instrument Flight Rules or IFR– but charter company Island Express’ agreement with the FAA allowed only flights where the pilot could maintain visual contact with the ground, known as Visual Flight Rules or VFR.
“It would seem to be that these flights should have been operated under IFR,” Sumwalt said.
In the days after the crash, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy blasted the FAA for not enacting an earlier NTSB recommendation requiring this type of helicopter carry a Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning System. Sumwalt said Tuesday NTSB now believes that system, known as HTAWS, would not have prevented this crash.
All 9 people on board perished
The helicopter crashed into hilly terrain in foggy conditions in Calabasas. The passengers were heading from Orange County to the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game in which Kobe Bryant was to coach and Gianna and two others aboard were to play.
In addition to Bryant, 41, and Gianna, 13, the crash claimed the lives of her teammates Payton Chester, 13, and Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Payton’s mother, Sarah Chester, 45; Alyssa’s parents Keri Altobelli, 46, and John Altobelli, 56; assistant coach Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Zobayan, 50.
All nine aboard died of blunt force trauma, and the manner of death was accidental, according to a coroner’s office.
Bryant, a 41-year-old 18-time All Star who won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, had made the trip to Thousand Oaks several times as a coach for the academy.
Pilot appeared to become disoriented in fog, previous documents show
Weather and visibility were a concern ahead of the flight, and Zobayan discussed the plan to go ahead in a group text before the trip, NTSB documents released last year show. Visibility was so low that morning that the Los Angeles Police Department had decided to ground its helicopters.
During the trip, the the pilot appeared to become disoriented in fog, the documents released last year by the NTSB show.
During the flight, Zobayan told a controller in a final communication that he was going to climb to 4,000 feet to get over the clouds, the NTSB said last year.
Radar showed that around 9:45 a.m., the craft climbed to about 2,300 feet above sea level and turned left, before descending at a rapid rate. it dropped off radar at about 1,200 feet, near the crash site, the NTSB had said.
The first 911 call for the flight came in at 9:47 a.m., Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said.
The helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, and parts were found scattered across an area that stretched up to 600 feet, the NTSB said days after the incident.
In a February 2020 update from the NTSB on the crash investigation, the board said there was no evidence of engine failure. Later that month, it issued a preliminary report underscoring the overcast weather in the area that day.
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Villanueva following the crash over eight deputies taking photos of the scene and the deceased victims. A leak from the department led to TMZ breaking the news, and fans flocked to the site.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an invasion-of-privacy bill in September which would make it illegal for first responders to share photos of a deceased person at a crime scene “for any purpose other than an official law enforcement purpose.”
Under the new “Kobe Bryant Act,” which went into effect this year, a first responder who is found guilty of the misdemeanor crime may be fined up to $1,000 per violation.