U.S. investigators say pilot error caused Kobe Bryant’s chopper crash

The helicopter crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and six other passengers was probably caused by the pilot becoming disoriented after flying into clouds, investigators said Tuesday.

Ara Zobayan, the pilot of the chartered Island Express helicopter, was likely to suffer from “spatial disorientation,” the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said.

Probably also contributed to the crash on January 26, 2020 in Calabasas, California, “self-induced pressure” on the pilot to complete the flight for his celebrity client, NTSB said.

The NTSB also cited “inadequate review and monitoring” of Island Express’ safety management processes as a likely cause of the crash but did not find that the helicopter had experienced any mechanical problems.

Bryant, 41, was traveling with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and six other passengers when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter crashed into a fog-covered slope west of Los Angeles. There were no survivors.

The NTSB said the weather conditions were marginal on the morning of the flight but acceptable for flying under visual flight rules, where a pilot stays outside the clouds and maintains eye contact with the ground.

Just before the crash, the pilot said that he climbed up to 1200 meters to get over the clouds, but the helicopter was actually in a steep left turn and sank quickly, said NTSB investigators.

While the pilot perceived that the helicopter was climbing it actually sank, they added.

“We’re talking about spatial disorientation where literally the pilot may not know which way is up or down, whether he or she is leaning left or right,” said NTSB President Robert Sumwalt.

In its findings, the NTSB said that “the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s decision to continue flying under visual flight rules in the instrument’s meteorological conditions, resulting in the pilot’s spatial disorientation and loss of control.”

Island Express was not certified to fly passengers under instrument conditions and the pilot broke the rules by trying to fly through the clouds.

“He would have been illegal by going into the clouds,” Sumwalt said.

‘Probable self-induced pressure’

The NTSB also said in its findings that “contributing to the accident was the pilot’s likely self-induced pressure.”

“Self-induced pressure is a real thing,” Sumwalt said.

“Pilots are ‘can-do’ oriented. The pilot gets paid to fly.” He wants the job done. “

Zobayan traveled Bryant that day from Orange County to Camarillo for a basketball game to be played by a team with the former NBA star’s daughter. Bryant was the youth team coach.

Two of Gianna Bryant’s 13-year-old teammates were among those who died in the crash along with an assistant coach on the Mamba Sports Academy team.

The NTSB chairman said the accident was avoidable.

“It could have landed safely all the way up to the point where he went into the clouds,” Sumwalt said. “There were opportunities along the way to have reversed course and prevent this crash by simply landing.”

The NTSB said there had been “insufficient scrutiny and oversight” of Island Express’s security management processes, but it was not considered an unsafe operator overall.

“We found no significant obvious problems with the organization,” Sumwalt said.

“They had canceled a number of flights due to the weather and that’s what we want companies to do.”

And while the 50-year-old Zobayan was considered an experienced pilot with more than 8,500 hours of flight time, “he made mistakes,” Sumwalt said.

“It was a matter of judgment and decision-making that led to this tragic situation,” he said.

Bryant was one of the greatest basketball players ever, an iconic figure who became a face for his sport during a glittering two-decade career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

He was a five-time NBA champion in a career that began in 1996 directly from high school and lasted until his retirement in 2016.

He was also a two-time Olympic gold medalist, helping to spark the NBA star squad for 2008 titles in Beijing and 2012 in London.