Safety investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Tuesday that the pilot of a helicopter that crashed and killed Kobe Bryant and eight others last year flew through clouds in an apparent violation of federal standards and probably became disoriented.
NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said at a Feb. 9 hearing that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, flew the aircraft to climb sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Southern California hills below, killing everyone on board, including Bryant and his thirteen-year-old daughter.
Sumwalt added that Zobayan was flying under visual flight rules, which meant that he needed to be able to see where he was going. Investigators also blamed the pilot for banking to the left instead of ascending straight up while trying to climb out of the bad weather.
Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on Jan. 26, 2020, when the helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into hills below, killing all nine aboard instantly before flames engulfed the wreckage.
The findings noted in Tuesday’s hearing echo the contents of a series of NTSB documents filed last year that examined various aspects of the crash and suggested Zobayan may have become disoriented in foggy conditions and experienced a condition known as “somatogravic illusion.”
While federal investigators did not determine the cause of the crash at the time, details found in the documents indicated that the pilot may have “misperceived” the helicopter’s position amid bad weather and not realized the craft was losing altitude.
Zobayan told air traffic control moments before the tragic accident that the helicopter was climbing, while it was actually descending, the NTSB documents indicate.
In adverse weather conditions, when a pilot is unable to use external visual cues and with insufficient attention to the helicopter’s instruments, he or she may become disoriented in what’s known as “somatogravic illusion.”
“Without outside references or attention to the helicopter’s attitude display, the actual pitch and bank angles have the potential to be misperceived,” wrote Marie Moler, NTSB Aircraft Performance Specialist, in a report.
“Additional sensory inputs, such as visual cues, are needed to correctly perceive attitude and acceleration. When a pilot misperceives attitude and acceleration it is known as the ‘somatogravic illusion’ and can cause spatial disorientation,” she noted.
Although the helicopter’s accelerations were not recorded since the aircraft did not have a data recorder, Moler indicated that “[c]alculated apparent angles at this time show that the pilot could have misperceived both pitch and roll angles.”
The revelation during Tuesday’s hearing followed plenty of finger-pointing, with Bryant’s widow blaming the pilot as well as the companies that owned and operated the helicopter. The helicopter companies have said that foggy weather before the helicopter hit the ground was an act of God and blamed air traffic controllers.
The crash has prompted a number of lawsuits and countersuits.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates transportation-related crashes but has no enforcement powers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.