LOS ANGELES – As helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan encountered a cloud bank and decided to try to climb out of it, he was likely worried about getting his star client, Kobe Bryant, his daughter and six others to a girls basketball tournament, federal safety investigators said.
That decision cost them all their lives, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday in releasing long-awaited findings of the Jan. 26, 2020, crash that killed all nine aboard.
The NTSB primarily blamed Zobayan for a series of poor decisions that led him to fly blindly into a wall of clouds where he became so disoriented he thought he was climbing when the craft was plunging toward a Southern California hillside.
Zobayan, an experienced pilot, ignored his training, violated flight rules by flying into conditions where he couldn’t see and failed to take alternate measures, such as landing or switching to auto-pilot, that would have averted the tragedy.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the accident illustrated that even good pilots can make bad decisions.
“Here is a case where a pilot who is well regarded apparently got into a very bad situation,” Sumwalt said. “The scenario we believe happened he is flying along, he realizes that he’s sort of getting boxed in with visibility and then he must have made the decision, ‘You know what, I’m just going to punch up through these clouds and get on top.’”
The board said it was likely he felt self-induced pressure to deliver Bryant to the destination. It's not the first time investigators have seen that happen with celebrities. Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg cited separate aircraft crashes that killed musicians Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Aaliyah.
"In all of those cases you are dealing with someone of great star power status and pilots who desperately want to do a good job for the customer," Landsberg said. “My sense is that the preponderance of the evidence, let’s call it 51%, indicate this pilot really wanted to get where he was going.”
The agency also faulted Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.
When Zobayan decided to climb above the clouds, he entered a trap that has doomed many flights. Once a pilot loses visual cues by flying into fog or darkness, the inner ear can send erroneous signals to the brain that causes spatial disorientation. It's sometimes known as “the leans,” causing pilots to believe they are flying aircraft straight and level when they are banking.
Zobayan radioed air traffic controllers that he was climbing when, in fact, he was banking and descending rapidly toward the steep hills near Calabasas, NTSB investigators concluded.
Flying under visual flight rules, Zobayan was required to be able to see where he was going. Flying into the cloud was a violation of that standard and probably led to his disorientation, the NTSB said.
There were 184 aircraft crashes between 2010-2019 involving spatial disorientation, including 20 fatal helicopter crashes, the NTSB said.
“What part of cloud, when you’re on a visual flight rules program, do pilots not understand?” Landsberg said.
NTSB member Michael Graham said Zobayan ignored his training and added that as long as helicopter pilots continue flying into clouds without relying on instruments, which requires a high level of training, “a certain percentage aren’t going to come out alive.”
Zobayan had been certified to fly using only instruments, but was no longer proficient, Sumwalt said.
The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter was flying at about 184 mph (296 kph) and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) per minute when it slammed into the hillside and ignited, scattering debris over an area the size of a football field. The victims died immediately.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and six others who left Orange County that morning were headed to the game at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County. The group had flown to the same destination the previous day and Zobayan had flown Bryant along that route at least 10 times in 2019.
The aircraft itself had been flown on largely direct routes between the airports in Orange and Ventura counties about two dozen times since late 2018, data shows, but the pilot took the chopper farther north because of low visibility that day.
There was no sign of mechanical failure and the pilot was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, investigators said.
The helicopter did not have so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required, that would have given investigators a better understanding of what happened.
The NTSB report reiterated a previous recommendation to require flight data and cockpit voice recorders on choppers, but the agency only investigates transportation-related crashes. It has no enforcement powers and must submit suggestions to agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration or the Coast Guard, which have repeatedly rejected some board safety recommendations after other transportation disasters.
The NTSB report is likely to factor into litigation in the case, whether it’s admissible in court or not, said Dallas lawyer Michael Lyons.
The crash generated lawsuits and countersuits, with Bryant’s widow suing Island Express and the pilot for wrongful death on the day a massive public memorial was held almost a year ago at Staples Center, where the Lakers all-star played.
Vanessa Bryant has sued Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp. She said Zobayan was not properly trained or supervised and should have aborted the flight.
Zobayan’s brother, Berge Zobayan, has said Kobe Bryant knew the risks of flying in a helicopter and that his survivors aren’t entitled to damages from the pilot’s estate. Island Express Helicopters Inc. denied responsibility and said the crash was “an act of God” that it could not control.
Lawyers for Berge Zobayan and Island Express declined to comment on the NTSB findings.
Families of other victims sued the helicopter companies but not the pilot.
The others killed in the crash 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.
The companies have countersued two FAA air traffic controllers, saying the crash was caused by their “series of erroneous acts and/or omissions.”
While air traffic controllers failed to report the loss of radar contact and radar communication with the flight, which was inconsistent with their procedures, it did not contribute to the crash, the NTSB said.