The National Transportation Safety Board today made its final determination in the January 26, 2020, helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others, finding that the mostly likely cause was that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, became disorientated after flying into clouds, at which point he lost control and flew into a hillside.
A contributing factor, the board declared, was that Zobayan likely felt self-imposed pressure to successfully complete his mission, which was to deliver Bryant and members of his daughter’s basketball team to a tournament taking place in Calabasas, California.
The findings dinged Zobayan’s employer, Island Express Helicopters Inc., for “inadequate review and oversight of the safety management processes.” The conclusions provided on Tuesday were largely consistent with analysis previously published in New York magazine and elsewhere.
The fatal flight had taken off 40 minutes before from an airport in Orange County and traveled north under a low overcast before turning west in an attempt to cross over a mountain pass in order to reach Calabasas, 17 miles to the west. But the pass was shrouded in clouds. Island Express helicopters are only legally allowed to fly under visual flight rules, meaning that its pilots could orient themselves by seeing the ground below them.
At the public hearing held before the NTSB board voted to approve the findings, members noted that Zobayan had ignored his own pilot training. Once he found himself in whiteout conditions, he should have leveled the helicopter, kept flying straight ahead, and slowed down. Instead he maintained high speed and attempted to climb twice as fast as recommended.
He might nonetheless have succeeded in punching up through the thousand-foot-thick cloud layer if he had managed to keep the helicopter flying straight ahead. To do this, he would have had to maintain intent focus on the flight instrument panel in front of him, lest he succumb to “the leans,” an illusion caused by the vestibular sensation that one is in a turn when one is not. However, a few seconds after he entered the clouds, an air-traffic controller asked him to press a button that would signal the helicopter’s location on the controller’s radar screen. This required him to move and shift his attention in a way that “could adversely affect his ability to effectively interpret the instruments and maintain control of the helicopter,” according to NTSB investigator Dujuan Sevillian.
Seconds later, he radioed to the controller that he was climbing to 4,000 feet. But he was already in a steep dive that would cause him to impact the ground at 184 mph.
Far from being an unusual type of accident, crashes resulting from pilots flying into clouds and becoming disoriented are a persistent problem. On average, there have been one of these fatal crashes every six months for the past decade.
The board noted that the fatal crash didn’t mean that Zobayan was a bad pilot, noting that he was generally held in high regard by colleagues and clients. As lead investigator Bill English put it, “Good people can make a bad decision, and we really want to get to the bottom of why.”
This article first ran on February 9, 2021 in New York magazine.