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Federal Investigators Say Pilot Error Caused Crash That Killed Kobe Bryant and Six Others

— February 12, 2021

Federal investigators believe the pilot may have experienced “self-induced pressure” that led him to flout federal law and take unnecessary risks.

Aviation investigators have concluded that the pilot of the helicopter which crashed while carrying NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, his younger daughter, and several other guests had likely become disoriented by dense fog.

The British Broadcasting Corporation recalls how Bryant, along with six others, were killed when a charted helicopter crashed into a hillside near Calabasas, California, in January of 2020.

The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was among the deceased.

According to the federal National Transportation Safety Board, Zobayan may have taken unusual and unnecessary risks. In a recently-released report, the NTSB speculates that Zobayan likely felt “self-induced pressure” to keep Bryant’s schedule on track.

Bryant was, at the time, headed to a basketball game at his Mamba Sports Academy.

The NTSB has thus far concluded that the crash’s primary cause was Zobayan’s decision to keep flying in inclement weather conditions, “which resulted in the pilot’s spatial disorientation and loss of control.”

Flight records and data show that Zobayan had told air traffic controllers that his helicopter was climbing out of heavy fog—which, in fact, he was actually descending towards a hillside.

“The maneuver is consistent with the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation in limited visibility conditions,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

Helicopter Cockpit
Helicopter Cockpit; image courtesy of Free-Photos via Pixabay,

“We are 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,” Sumwalt explained.

While Zobayan’s helicopter was not required to have a so-called “black box,” investigators did not find any evidence suggesting that the aircraft had suffered a mechanical failure.

Rather, the NTSB suggest that Zobayan neglected his own training—and flouted federal aviation law—by flying into thick, visually impenetrable cloud cover.

Zobayan, say investigators, “was flying under visual flight orders or VFR which legally prohibited him from penetrating the clouds.”

Instead of trying to escape the clouds and fog by flying upwards, Zobayan banked his helicopter to the left of his flight path—putting the aircraft on a collision course with high hills.

Both the BBC and the NTSB speculate that Zobayan’s “close relationship” with Bryant may have compelled him to fly in conditions the experienced pilot might have otherwise deemed unsafe for travel.

The Associated Press notes that Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, has filed lawsuits against Island Express Helicopters, which operated the aircraft, and its parent company, Island Express Holding Corp.

Berge Zobayan, the late pilot’s brother, said that Kobe Bryant should have been aware of the risks of flying in a helicopter—and that the basketball superstar’s surviving family should not be entitled to claim anything from Ara Zobayan’s estate.


Kobe Bryant crash: Pilot appeared to violate flight standards, likely became disoriented in clouds, NTSB says

Kobe Bryant crash: Pilot ‘likely disorientated amid fog’

NTSB report: Pilot felt pressure to fly Kobe Bryant to game

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