The pilot of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter flew into clouds last year in an apparent violation of federal standards, US safety investigators have said.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Ara Zobayan had been “flying under visual flight orders or VFR which legally prohibited him from penetrating the clouds”.
The NTSB said Zobayan had violated federal standards that required him to be able to see where he was going, but instead he was likely to have become disorientated just before the crash on 26 January last year near Los Angeles.
All nine people on board were killed, including Zobayan, basketball star Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
During the 40-minute journey, Zobayan, an experienced pilot who had carried Bryant before, had gone against his training and become spatially disoriented in thick clouds.
This can happen to pilots with low visibility when they cannot tell up from down or work out which way an aircraft is banking, the NTSB said.
When Zobayan told flight controllers he was climbing and had nearly broken through the clouds, the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter was instead descending at increasing magnitude, investigators said.
Sumwalt said the board would discuss the “phenomenon of spatial disorientation, which is the powerful sensation that confuses pilots who lose visual reference and what types of training can be effective in countering this effect”.
There were 184 crashes between 2010 and 2019 involving spatial disorientation, including 20 fatal helicopter crashes, according to the NTSB.
Bryant – a 41-year-old 18-time National Basketball Association all-star with the Los Angeles Lakers – and his daughter were traveling with the others to a youth basketball tournament.
They were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.
Another issue likely to be discussed is the lack of a terrain awareness warning system, which would have warned the pilot of the crash risk.
They were only mandatory on air ambulance helicopters but the NTSB has recommended that they be required on all helicopters.
Politicians have sponsored the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act which makes the system mandatory on every helicopter that carries six or more passengers.
But the system, called TAWS, is expensive and requires maintenance and training.
The Helicopter Association, which represents the industry, has also warned against what it calls a “one solution fits all” method.
The helicopter was also not legally required to have a ‘black box’ recording device, but the NTSB previously ruled out mechanical failure, saying the crash was believed to have been an accident.