NTSB: Pilot's decision making led to crash that killed Kobe Bryant and seven others

On that terrible Sunday afternoon, with wreckage of a helicopter still smoldering on a hillside, the National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a team of investigators to Southern California.

Their mission was to figure out what went wrong during Kobe Bryant’s final flight. Why did a helicopter carrying Bryant and eight others suddenly crash? How did a typically routine flight end in tragedy?

Three-hundred-eighty days into that process, investigators on Tuesday morning presented their findings to a five-person NTSB board. The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the crash was the pilot’s decision to fly into marginal conditions, “which resulted in spatial disorientation and loss of control.”

In other words, despite warnings, he flew into dense fog and low-hanging clouds, became disoriented, lost control of the helicopter and crashed.

Pilot Ara Zobayan had clearance to fly under special visual flight rules, enabling him to venture into marginal weather conditions as long as he could continue to stay below the cloud layer and navigate with his eyes. But the company Zobayan worked for did not have the needed certification for him to fly into the clouds, which would have required him to navigate using only his helicopter’s instruments.

FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2021, file photo, Anthony Calderon wears a Kobe Bryant jersey in Calabasas, Calif., at the site of a helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others one year ago. Federal safety officials are expected to vote Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, on what likely caused the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others to crash into a Southern California hillside last year, killing all aboard. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Anthony Calderon wears a Kobe Bryant jersey in Calabasas, Calif., at the site of a helicopter crash that killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others one year ago. (AP)

Having pushed on despite previous warning signs of worsening conditions, Zobayan found himself squeezed between rising terrain and low-hanging clouds in the final minutes of the flight. He began a sudden climb in an effort to break through the clouds into clear skies, but NTSB investigators say that he failed to follow proper protocol and lost his bearings while still enveloped by fog.

“There are really two types of disorientation,” NTSB chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said. “There's the type of disorientation like you are lost. You might think you are over the I-5 freeway but you are really over the 101. That is not the type of disorientation we are talking about here at all. 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.

“I think it's important to draw that distinction.”

Contributing to the accident, according to the NTSB, was the likely “self-induced pressure” the pilot felt to get Bryant to his destination on time. There was no evidence that Bryant directly placed pressure on Zobayan to take off or complete the flight despite adverse weather, but investigators described it as “human nature” to want to please a client of the NBA icon’s stature.

Another factor cited by the NTSB was Zobayan’s lack of an alternative plan, “which adversely affected his decision-making” and contributed to his desire to push ahead to his destination. Investigators also found fault with Zobayan’s employer, criticizing its “inadequate review and oversight of its safety management processes.”

The NTSB’s conclusions about the cause of the crash contained few surprises. Over the past year, the NTSB has released 1,853 pages of evidence, including interview transcripts, air traffic control recordings and meteorological reports. Investigators found no indication there was anything wrong with the helicopter. Thus, their focus quickly turned to the treacherous Southern California weather that day — and to the pilot’s decision to fly into it.

The weather was a topic of conversation among Bryant’s travel coordinating team until just before takeoff. Though local forecasts warned of dense fog and “low clouds likely pushing into the valleys of L.A,” Zobayan deemed the conditions “OK” in text messages to the group. The owner of the helicopter company that arranged the flight agreed.

At about 9 a.m., Bryant and his daughter Gianna boarded helicopter N72EX in Orange County en route to a youth basketball tournament northwest of Los Angeles. Seated alongside them were Gianna’s teammates, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, their parents, Keri and John Altobelli and Sarah Chester, and assistant coach Christina Mauser.

Much of the flight was uneventful. Zobayan followed major Southern California freeways over flat land and through an overcast sky. But shortly after Zobayan joined U.S. 101 to cut a pass through rising terrain, the conditions worsened. Thick fog pooled against the slopes of the Santa Monica foothills, severely limiting visibility.

A local pastor told Yahoo Sports it was so foggy at that time that catching a punt would have been near impossible. A local cyclist told investigators that he canceled his ride that morning out of fear drivers wouldn’t be able to see him.

It’s here that NTSB board members were especially harsh in their judgment of Zobayan. They say he should have recognized conditions were deteriorating and diverted course.

“As long as we continue to have VFR only helicopters continuing to flirt with marginal weather and low altitudes, low ceilings, limited visibility, unfortunately a certain percentage will fly straight into inadvertent [instrument-only conditions],” NTSB board member Michael Graham said. “And unfortunately a certain percentage will not come out alive.”

Zobayan would have had a better chance to beat the odds, NTSB investigators say, if he hadn’t been flying at “an excessive speed” as the terrain around him began to rise and the fog around him began to thicken. Sensing that he could no safely fly below the clouds and navigate with his eyes, Zobayan radioed air traffic control, “We’re gonna go ahead and start our climb to go above the layers.”

And climb he did, from 1,400 feet to 2,300. He ultimately came within perhaps 100 feet of escaping the clouds and reaching clear skies.

At 9:45, Zobayan told air traffic control, “Climbing to four thousand.”

Except, by then, he wasn’t anymore.

He had begun veering left off the 101.

And then, seconds later, rapidly descending, barreling toward a hillside.

Firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash where former NBA star Kobe Bryant died, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash where former NBA star Kobe Bryant died, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Independent aviation experts support the NTSB’s theory that while enshrouded by clouds, Zobayan may have experienced “spatial disorientation.”

“You just don't make an incredibly steep descending turn like that on purpose,” former NTSB investigator Jeff Guzzetti told Yahoo Sports. “If he wants to do a 180-degree turn to get out, well then you don't descend. You just slow up and make a nice, level 180-degree turn. But that turn, the bank angle and the rate of descent was very excessive, which in my mind is indicative of loss of control.”

In a sweeping lawsuit filed last February, Vanessa Bryant’s attorneys alleged that Kobe and Gianna died “as a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan.” The pilot, the lawsuit argues, “failed to properly monitor and assess the weather prior to takeoff” on that fateful January morning; “failed to abort the flight when he knew of the cloudy conditions; … and failed to properly and safely operate the helicopter resulting in a crash.”

While the NTSB’s conclusions about the cause of the crash aren’t admissible in court, the factual information uncovered by investigators can be used as evidence in wrongful death lawsuits. Aviation experts who spoke to Yahoo Sports say the NTSB’s findings appear to support some of the accusations made by Vanessa and other victims’ family members.

Some experts Yahoo Sports spoke to said Zobayan never should have taken off. Others deem that decision a judgment call. But all agree that Zobayan should have landed mid-flight after warnings from air traffic control that instrument-only conditions lay ahead.

“They had an easy alternative of landing at Van Nuys Airport, a large airport with lots of infrastructure a few minutes away,” NTSB lead investigator Bill English said.

The outcome of the investigation heaping blame on Zobayan is a cruel twist for a man who over the years became Bryant’s most trusted pilot. Only a few other pilots were even approved to fly Bryant. Only Zobayan was ever requested.

As Bryant increasingly turned to helicopter travel to avoid LA traffic, Zobayan became more than an air chauffeur. His work ethic and professionalism endeared him to Bryant. His warmth and positivity put the NBA icon at ease. Out of respect for Bryant’s privacy, Zobayan rarely spoke of their relationship, but it was clear to others that one existed.

Ara Zobayan, pictured in front of the Sikorsky helicopter he flew with Kobe Bryant and seven others on January 26, 2020. (Courtesy of Chuck Street)
Ara Zobayan, pictured in front of the Sikorsky helicopter he flew with Kobe Bryant and seven others on January 26, 2020. (Courtesy of Chuck Street)

“They were more than friendly,” said Zobayan’s friend Chuck Street. "There was a mutual respect.”

“Kobe would even have Ara fly his girls by themselves,” Whitney Bagge, vice-president of the helicopter company that employed Zobayan, told investigators. “That's how much he trusted [him].”

Born in war-torn Lebanon in 1970, Zobayan immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager with a dream of becoming a pilot. He worked multiple jobs to pay for the flight lessons that would launch his career.

Three decades after arriving in Southern California with little more than a relative's address, Zobayan was flying Kobe and a variety of other VIPs. He accumulated more than 8,200 hours of flight experience, including about 1,250 hours in the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter that Bryant preferred.

Sumwalt described Zobayan as “well thought of” and “well regarded” by others in the aviation industry.

"I think this illustrates that even good pilots can end up in bad situations," he said.

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