NTSB Finds Pilot Caused Kobe Bryant Crash by Flying Into Fog

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The charter pilot who was flying basketball star Kobe Bryant last year failed to follow his training and kept going despite deteriorating weather only to become disoriented in clouds and crash the helicopter, killing all aboard, investigators concluded Tuesday.

Pilot Ara Zobayan was trained to climb straight up if he encountered clouds, but instead got disoriented and turned sharply, U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigators said as they concluded the cause of the Jan. 26, 2020, crash near Los Angeles.

“He didn’t even follow the training,” NTSB board member Thomas Chapman said.

Zobayan fell prey to a widely known hazard in aviation: a pilot who is tricked into thinking he or she is flying level when they are in fact turning or diving. The Sikorsky S-76B slammed into the base of a hillside, killing Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other people.

The NTSB also identified numerous factors that helped lead to the crash. Zobayan had an opportunity to land at nearby airports, but passed that up in spite of knowing that clouds were shrouding nearby hills. The charter company, Island Express Helicopters Inc., didn’t have a rigorous internal safety program.

And even though the helicopter could fly in clouds, the company wasn’t permitted to do so and it had been months since Zobayan had practiced that type of flying.

That issue has arisen repeatedly in helicopter crashes. The S-76B is equipped with a sophisticated autopilot that the pilot could have programmed to help fly in the clouds, but it apparently wasn’t activated.

Investigators believe there were multiple opportunities to have prevented the crash, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said during a press conference after the meeting.

If the charter company had taken the extra steps to be able to legally fly in clouds, the pilot could have climbed above the thin fog layer and “flown up in the clear blue Southern California sky” to the destination, Sumwalt said.

“Another way would have been if the pilot would have, when things started going sour in terms of the visibility not looking great, made the decision right then and there to land somewhere and not continue to press on,” he said.

The vast majority of helicopter charter flights are conducted under what are known as visual flight rules -- the pilots must be able to navigate by seeing the ground. They can be safe, but risks go up sharply if weather deteriorates and pilots enter clouds, investigators said. Instrument flight rules come into play when aircraft encounter poor visibility.

Not ‘Difficult Flight’

“For an appropriately certified IFR operation, this would not have been a difficult flight,” lead investigator Bill English said.

In Zobayan’s case, he had been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly on instruments, but it wasn’t clear he had performed the necessary work to remain legal do to so, investigators said.

The safety board also issued several recommendations, calling on the FAA, which oversees the industry, to require simulation training to help pilots avoid similar accidents and to convene a panel to study ways to prevent flight crews from becoming disoriented.

The FAA is in the process of writing a regulation that would require the adoption of the safety programs at charter companies that NTSB is recommending, it said in an emailed statement.

“The FAA takes NTSB recommendations very seriously and will respond preliminarily to them within 90 days,” the agency said

The NTSB also urged charter company Island Express to voluntarily adopt state-of-the-art internal safety programs and to install data monitoring devices on its helicopters so it can more closely track its operations.

Company spokesman Matt Barkett said the company won’t comment on the findings.

The board also cited previous recommendations to require helicopters be equipped with video recorders in the cockpit to help investigators and calling on FAA to mandate better internal safety programs at charter companies.

Contributing to the accident was pressure that Zobayan appears to have felt to proceed with the flight and the “inadequate review and oversight” by Island Express, the NTSB found.

While investigators didn’t find hard evidence that Zobayan was pressured to continue the flight, they said his actions were consistent with someone who had “self-induced” pressure. He had become close to Bryant and may have wanted to ensure he got to his daughter’s basketball game.

The company could have relieved that pressure if it had done more planning before the flight, so that he could have landed at an alternate airport and alternate transportation was arranged, investigators said.

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