Kobe Bryant Helicopter Pilot Blamed for Crash; Likely Disoriented in Clouds, NTSB Says

Over a year after Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven others were killed in a January 26, 2020, helicopter crash, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) is sharing the findings of its investigation.

During a public, livestreamed hearing on Tuesday, officials said the pilot of the helicopter, Ara Zobayan, appeared to violate federal standards and is likely to have experienced "spatial disorientation" while flying through clouds on the day of the fatal incident.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt describes this disorientation as "the powerful, misleading sensations that can confuse a pilot conducting a visual flight who loses visual references, and what types of training can be effective in countering this effect." Essentially, Zobayan may have thought the aircraft was climbing when it, in fact, was descending.

After the conference, the NTSB issued an official statement of probable cause, blaming Zobayan and his reported actions.

"The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause of this accident was the pilot's decision to continue flight under visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions which resulted in the pilot spatial disorientation and loss of control."

"Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s likely self-induced pressure and the pilot’s plan continuation bias which adversely affected his decision-making and [helicopter owner] Island Express Helicopter Inc.'s inadequate review and oversight of its safety management processes."

While investigators say Zobayan communicated with air traffic control on numerous occasions, he reportedly did not declare an emergency. They also said that his excessive speed entering the cloud at the rapid rate of decline and his left turn were inconsistent with his training.

Officials also said that Bryant did not pressure Zobayan to take any dangerous risks before the crash. However, as referenced in the official statement, Zobayan may have put pressure on himself to please a famous client.

"There was no evidence that Island Express, the air charter broker or the client [Kobe Bryant] placed pressure on the pilot to accept the charter flight request or complete the flight and adverse weather,” an official was quoted saying via TMZ.

"This type of relationship that he had with the client can lead to self-induced pressure during the en-route portion of the flight," another official was quoted saying via TMZ, about Bryant and Zobayan’s relationship.

Additionally, officials believe Zobayan had multiple opportunities to safely land the aircraft before experiencing spatial disorientation and crashing.

The NTSB previously said the helicopter did not have engine failure before it crashed. However, days after the incident, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said the helicopter was not equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS), a device aimed at preventing unintentional impacts with the ground.

The tragic crash also claimed the lives of Gianna’s basketball teammate Alyssa Altobelli; Alyssa’s father, Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli; Alyssa’s mother, Keri Altobelli; Harbor Day School basketball coach Christina Mauser; middle school student Payton Chester; and Payton’s mother, Sarah Chester.

Last February, Vanessa Bryant filed a wrongful death suit against Island Express Helicopters Inc., as well as a representative or successor for Zobayan alleging negligence. Both defendants have denied wrongdoing.

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