The National Transportation Safety Board concluded Tuesday that pilot Ara Zobayan's poor decision-making probably caused the helicopter crash invol
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded Tuesday that pilot Ara Zobayan’s poor decision-making probably caused the helicopter crash involving NBA star Kobe Bryant.
The NTSB found that Zobayan was flying under visual flight rules, which means he had to be able to see where he was going, but chose to fly into thick clouds, where he became spatially disoriented. The NTSB identified “self-induced pressure and plan continuation bias” as contributing factors in Zobayan’s decision-making.
Investigators also attributed fault to the company that operated the flight, Island Express Helicopters, citing its “inadequate review and oversight of its safety management processes.”
“By most measures, the interviews that we conducted, the pilot was well thought of, well-regarded. He was the chief pilot. Had good credentials,” NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said during a board meeting to discuss the findings.
“I think this illustrates that even good pilots can end up in bad situations.”
KOBE BRYANT REMEMBERED:Read our series looking back a year after the deadly crash
The NTSB’s long-awaited findings come a little more than a year after the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter crashed into the hills near Calabasas, California on Jan. 26, 2020.
All nine people on board died in the crash, including Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; Christina Mauser, an assistant coach; and Zobayan, the pilot. The group had been traveling to Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game.
Experts and investigative records had long pointed to spatial disorientation as a significant factor in the crash. NTSB investigators said Tuesday that from 2010 to 2019, the board found 194 fatal aircraft accidents related to spatial disorientation.
In their deliberations about the crash, NTSB investigators and board members also repeatedly referenced Zobayan’s decision to proceed into poor weather rather than land the helicopter at nearby Van Nuys Airport, and wait it out.
Bryant, who was 41, had become well-known for traveling by helicopter both during his NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers and in retirement. He viewed it as a way to avoid the oft-gridlocked traffic in Los Angeles and the surrounding area. He had previously flown in the aircraft that crashed, and traveled regularly with Zobayan.
The NTSB, a government agency tasked with investigating transporation accidents, began looking into the crash shortly after it occurred. Investigators conducted nearly two dozen interviews and collected more than 1,800 pages of evidence, including weather analyses, maintenance records, training logs, witness reports and emails.
The NTSB even pulled video footage from cameras that had been stationed behind youth baseball fields in the area, in an effort to determine visibility that morning.
The basic facts of the flight came together quickly: The aircraft departed John Wayne-Orange County Airport just after 9 a.m. local time, flew north, circled to make way for air traffic at a nearby airport and then followed a highway into the hills near Calabasas. It was a foggy morning, and as the helicopter entered more variable terrain, Zobayan informed air traffic controllers that he would climb to a higher altitude to get above the clouds. Instead, the helicopter banked left and sped toward the ground.
Within weeks of the crash, the NTSB had recovered the helicopter’s engines and determined there was no evidence of catastrophic engine failure. Instead, the bulk of the investigation focused on the weather and the actions of the pilot.
As the NTSB’s investigation continued, a separate process has played out in federal and state courts, where the victims’ families have filed a series of lawsuits against the helicopter company, Island Express Helicopters, and, in some cases, Zobayan’s estate. The helicopter company has since countersued the air traffic controllers who were on duty that day, in what experts believe is an effort to spread liability.
Though the NTSB’s probable cause determination is not admissible in court, it usually helps shape the trajectory of related lawsuits, according to Christopher Odell, a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter and expert in aviation litigation.
“(The NTSB’s findings) give a lot of guidance to the parties,” Odell said last month. “… The jury can come out a different way than the NTSB on the facts, in terms of who is responsible. But the NTSB is very good at its job, and investigators are very experienced and highly trained, and they’ll probably get to the bottom of it.”