The pilot of the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, killing Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others, became disoriented in heavy fog that left him unable to discern up from down, causing him to slam the copter into a hillside, federal investigators concluded this week.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded pilot error was the probable cause of the Jan. 26, 2020, crash, saying pilot Ara Zobayan believed he was ascending above the fog when he was actually descending at high speed.
According to NTSB chief investigator Bill English, Zobayan told an air traffic controller, “he was climbing (to) 4,000 feet, however, by that time, the helicopter was in a tightening left turn and descending rapidly. This maneuver is consistent with the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation and limited visibility conditions.”
The NTSB findings were presented Tuesday morning after an investigation that lasted about one year. The report found no mechanical difficulties on the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter that would have contributed to the crash.
Zobayan was the chief pilot for the helicopter company Island Express, and had been flying in the area for 10 years. But investigators said the evidence indicated that he failed to strictly follow the aircraft’s instruments and his training, and he did not appear to have a backup plan in the event he couldn’t complete the flight. He also flew too fast and violated visual flight rules by flying into the clouds, according to the NTSB. Visual flight rules mandate that pilots need to be able to see where they are going.
Last month, Rep. Brad Sherman (CA-30), and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), announced proposed legislation that would require the installation of Terrain Avoidance Warning Systems (TAWS) on all helicopters carrying six or more passengers.
While the NTSB has been recommending such a requirement for 15 years, investigators said Tuesday that TAWS would not have prevented the Calabasas crash, since Zobayan was aware of the terrain.
Bryant and the other passengers were being flown to the former Laker’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game, with Bryant coaching his daughter’s team.
Along with Bryant, 41, and his daughter, also killed in the crash were:
–John Altobelli, 56, longtime coach of the Orange Coast College baseball team, along with his wife, Keri, 46, and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa, who was a teammate of Gianna on Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy basketball team;
–Sarah Chester, 45, and her 13-year-old daughter Payton, who also played with Gianna and Alyssa;
–Christina Mauser, 38, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches on the Mamba Academy team; and