Federal investigators have concluded that pilot error was the cause of the Jan. 26, 2020 Calabasas helicopter crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
The NTSB said pilot Ara Zobayan become disoriented while navigating through heavy fog while ferrying the eight passengers from Orange County to Camarillo for a youth basketball game, believing he was ascending above the fog when he was actually descending before slamming into a hillside.
NTSB chief investigator Bill English said Zobayan, in communication with an air traffic controller, “said he was climbing (to) 2,400 feet, however, by that time the helicopter was in a tightening left turn and descending rapidly. This maneuver is consistent with the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation and limited visibility conditions.”
The NTSB findings were presented Tuesday morning after an investigation that lasted about one year. A five-member board was questioning investigators Tuesday and was expected to officially accept the report and offer recommendations when the questioning concludes.
The report found no mechanical difficulties on the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter that would have contributed to the crash.
Zobayan was the chief pilot for the helicopter company, Island Express, and had been flying in the area for 10 years. But investigators said the evidence indicated that he failed to strictly follow the aircraft’s instruments and his training and did not appear to have a backup plan in the event that he couldn’t complete the flight.
Last month, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, announced proposed legislation that would require the installation of Terrain Avoidance Warning Systems on all helicopters carrying six or more passengers.
The NTSB has been recommending such a requirement for 15 years, but the Federal Aviation Administration requires only air ambulances to be outfitted with the system.
However, NTSB investigators said Tuesday that TAWS would not have prevented this crash, since Zobayan was aware of the terrain.
“These devices are designed for a class of accidents we call controlled flight into terrain in which … the pilot is not aware of the terrain or they turned the wrong way or descendent below an altitude,” English said.
“… this accident is not consistent with the controlled flight into terrain scenario. The pilot had every indication he was aware of the terrain along 101 as it was rising toward Calabasas. The radar returns that we have on the helicopter show he was doing a very good job of maintaining altitude of the terrain and in fact, his intent was to climb away from the terrain so at no time was he ever in that danger in the early portions of the accident. He was aware of the terrain somehow.
“… The pilot doesn’t know which way is up so this type of system would not aid in that situation. … While it’s great technology, we don’t think it applies here.”
The weather on the morning of the flight included a widespread area of coastal clouds about 1,000 to 2,000 feet thick “characterized by stratus clouds at the top at the potential for fog formation below. There were no hazardous conditions such as icing or thunderstorms,” English said.
The flight departed at 9:07 a.m. and proceeded northwest across the Los Angeles metropolitan area. At 9:20 a.m., Zobayan requested permission to enter air space over Burbank Airport but was advised to hold for traffic. About 11 minutes later he was provided clearance through the Burbank airspace, maintaining an altitude of about 500 feet above ground level.
As the flight proceeded west out of the San Fernando Valley, controllers advised Zobayan that his altitude level would be too low as the helicopter followed the Hollywood (101) Freeway toward an area of rising terrain. About four minutes later, Zobayan told controllers that he was intending to climb above the cloud layers.
The helicopter had been flying at about 350 feet above ground level, but during this transmission to controllers it began climbing at a rate of about 1,500 feet per minute while generally following the 101 and a slight left turn.
“During radio communications with ATC the helicopter climbed (about 1,300 feet above ground level) by which point it was highly unlikely for the pilot to be able to maintain visual ground contact,” investigators said.
“The controller asked the pilot’s intention and he said he was climbing 2,400 feet. However, by that time the helicopter was in a tightening left turn and descending rapidly,” English said. “This maneuver is consistent with the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation and limited visibility conditions.”
The weather forecast at the time of the flight’s departure showed that airports in Orange County, Burbank, Van Nuys and Camarillo all called for ceilings of 1,000 feet, and all but Van Nuys Airport were forecasting visibility of 3 miles until 9:30 a.m. Van Nuys Airport forecast visibility of 2 miles.
But investigators said those conditions were not bad enough to indicate that the flight should have been canceled.
Another NTSB investigator who specializes in pilot training said Zobayan operated in an inconsistent manner with his training.
“During the climb and subsequent descent the pilot communicated with air traffic control on numerous occasions but did not declare an emergency. The excessive speed entering the cloud the rapid rate of decline and the left turn were inconsistent with his training,” he said.
An NTSB specialist in human performance issues said Zobayan should have relied on the flight instruments if he was losing his bearings.
“As the helicopter continued climbing into the cloud the loss of visual references would have required him to transition to the flight instruments to maintain awareness of the helicopters attitude and track,” he said. “When flying aircraft and there’s a lack of outside visual references the inner ear can give us a false sense of orientation because the inner ear cannot distinguish between accelerations and tilt. If a pilot cannot see outside visual references he must rely on flight instruments.”
Communication with air traffic control might have been a factor as well, he said.
“As the helicopter climbed, the air traffic controller asked the pilot to ident which required the pilot to move his hand to the center of the instrument panel and press a button. The pilot’s tasks associated with communicating with the controller and pushing the ident button introduced operational distractions from his primary task of monitoring the flight instruments. The resulted interruptions … would make him more vulnerable to misleading vestibular cues that could adversely affect his ability to effectively interpret the instruments and maintain control of the helicopter.”
From 2010-19, the NTSB recorded 184 fatal aircraft accidents related to spatial disorientation, 20 of which were fatal helicopter accidents.
Bryant and the other passengers were being flown to the former Laker’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game, with Bryant coaching his daughter’s team.
The crash has sparked an array of lawsuits filed by relatives of the crash victims, including Bryant’s widow, Vanessa.
Vanessa Bryant has also sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department over cell phone pictures taken at the crash scene by responding deputies.
Along with Bryant, 41, and his daughter, also killed in the crash were:
— John Altobelli, 56, longtime coach of the Orange Coast College baseball team, along with his wife, Keri, 46, and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa, who was a teammate of Gianna on Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy basketball team;
— Sarah Chester, 45, and her 13-year-old daughter Payton, who also played with Gianna and Alyssa;
— Christina Mauser, 38, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches on the Mamba Academy team; and
— Zobayan, 50.