National Transportation Safety Board officials last week pinned the blame for the January 2020 helicopter crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven other people on the helicopter’s pilot.
Ara Zobayan, the pilot, had 10 years of experience flying in the area. Before the Jan. 26 crash, the helicopter climbed severely before it banked and then slammed into a hillside near Calabasas in Southern California, according to Fox News.
The board ruled in a report that Zobayan’s mistakes began when he decided to fly under visual flight rules in cloudy conditions, meaning he needed to be able to see where he was going. The NTSB ruled that Zobayan’s “spatial disorientation” probably led to the helicopter going out of control, according to the report.
As a factor, the board further cited Zobayan’s “likely” self-induced pressure to get the 41-year-old former Lakers star, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and their guests from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament in Ventura County.
The NTSB also said Island Express, which owned the helicopter, was to blame for an inadequate review of safety management procedures.
But mostly the report focused on the pilot.
“As the helicopter climbed rapidly into the cloud layer and IMC [instrument meteorological conditions] while in a gradual left turn, the pilot’s associated loss of outside visual references made him susceptible to experiencing vestibular illusions (in which the vestibular system in the inner ear produces a false sense of helicopter attitude and trajectory) that can lead to spatial disorientation,” the NTSB ruled.
The report said Zobayan made mistakes because he was trying to complete his mission of getting Bryant to his destination.
“The pilot’s continuation of the accident flight into IMC was inconsistent with his typical judgment and decision-making behavior and was likely influenced by his self-induced pressure, lack of an alternate plan, and plan continuation bias,” the report said.
“The pilot’s poor decision to fly at an excessive airspeed for the weather conditions was inconsistent with his adverse-weather avoidance training and reduced the time available for him to choose an alternative course of action to avoid entering instrument meteorological conditions.”
The NTSB said the accident did not need to happen.
“This weather did not sneak up on the pilot,” Bill English, the lead investigator, told the board, adding that the pilot had the “very easy alternative” of landing at a nearby airport, according to The New York Times.
Flying under visual flight rules while going above the clouds was “legally prohibited,” but Zobayan “continued his flight into clouds,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
NTSB member Michael Graham said that when helicopters fly into the clouds under visual flight rules, “a certain percentage will not come out alive.”
Zobayan suffered a somatogravic illusion, according to Dr. Dujuan Sevillian, in which he thought the helicopter was climbing when it was not doing so.
“Our inner ear can give us a false sense of orientation,” Sevillian told the L.A. Times, adding that the issue is exacerbated when flying in clouds.
Although the NTSB said Bryant did not put pressure on the pilot to fly, the pilot felt it nevertheless, according to the New York Daily News.
“The relationship between the pilot and [Bryant] had turned into a friendship over the years. The client allowed the pilot to fly his children without him being present. That type of relationship was very close,” Sevillian said.
“This type of relationship that he had with the client can lead to self-induced pressure during the flight.”
Also killed in the crash were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli; his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who assisted Bryant in coaching his daughter’s basketball team; Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton; and the pilot.
Alyssa and Payton were teammates of Gianna Bryant.
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