The pilot of the helicopter that crashed in thick fog, killing Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers, reported he was climbing when he actually was descending, federal investigators said in documents released Wednesday.
Ara Zobayan radioed to air traffic controllers that he was climbing to 4,000 feet to get above clouds on January 26 when, in fact, the helicopter was plunging toward a hillside where it crashed northwest of Los Angeles.
The report by the National Transportation Safety Board said Zobayan may have ‘misperceived’ the pitch of the aircraft, which can happen when a pilot becomes disoriented in low visibility.
It also shows Zobayan had told the person arranging the flight that the weather ‘should be OK’ on the morning of the crash. The broker had said conditions ‘could be an issue’.
Experts said shortly after the crash that the path of the flight indicated Zobayan was disoriented.
The 1,700 pages of reports do not offer a conclusion of what caused the crash but compile factual reports. A final report on the cause is due later.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six of their friends were killed, along with Zobayan.
Ara Zobayan radioed to air traffic controllers that he was climbing to 4,000 feet to get above clouds on January 26 when, in fact, the helicopter was plunging toward a hillside where it crashed northwest of Los Angeles
Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and six of their friends were killed, along with Zobayan
Ara Zobayan radioed to air traffic controllers that he was climbing to 4,000 feet to get above clouds on January 26 when, in fact, the helicopter was plunging toward a hillside
About 45 minutes before takeoff, Zobayan had texted a group of people overseeing the flight that the weather was looking ‘OK.’
Richard Webb, owner of OC Helicopters, which booked the flight, agreed.
He took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. with the eight passengers he had flown the day before to the same destination: a girls basketball tournament at the retired Lakers star’s Mamba Sports Academy north of Los Angeles.
When the helicopter hadn’t landed within an hour, an executive of the company that operated the craft began a frantic search for the craft on tracking software and had another company chopper dispatched to look for it.
John Cox, an aviation safety consultant, said the helicopter’s erratic flight path — the aircraft slowed, climbed, then banked to one side while sinking rapidly — are telltale signs of a pilot becoming disoriented in conditions that make it hard to see terrain or the horizon.
‘He is not the first person to experience it,’ Cox said. ‘It’s a significant cause of accidents.’
‘The weird thing, though, is that the tracker had stopped at 9:45 a.m. which is not normal and we were trying to reach Ara over the radio,’ noted Whitney Bagge, vice president of Island Express Helicopters.
‘I kept refreshing the tracker praying that it was just broken.’
The NTSB previously said there was no sign of mechanical failure in the Sikorsky S-76.
Four current and one former pilot for Island Express were interviewed by NTSB investigators and while some praised the company, others said the safety culture could have been better, according to the reports.
One pilot said Zobayan, the company’s chief pilot, didn’t discuss safety policy or the minimum visibility needed to fly in certain weather. Another comment said the company didn’t have a real safety management program.
The company, however, said it had no problem canceling flights if weather was poor. It cited six flights it canceled for Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard and one for celebrity Kylie Jenner.
Debris is seen as the site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others
The report by the National Transportation Safety Board said Zobayan may have ‘misperceived’ the pitch of the aircraft, which can happen when a pilot becomes disoriented in low visibility
Island Express reported 150 flight cancellations due to weather last year. There were 13 cancellations due to weather for 2020, all logged in the two days before Bryant’s fatal flight.
The afternoon before the flight — after returning the Bryants and their guests to Orange County — Zobayan had texted that he had just checked the weather for his next flight and it was ‘not the best day tomorrow but it is not as bad as today.’
The flight departure Saturday morning had been delayed by weather by 15 minutes, according to an NTSB interview with Cate Brady, the personal assistant to Bryant.
Brady said the original flight time for Sunday was 9:45 a.m., but Bryant had it rescheduled to 9 a.m. because he wanted to see another team play before his daughter’s game.
The 1,700 pages of reports do not offer a conclusion of what caused the crash but compile factual reports. A final report on the cause is due later
NTSB investigators Adam Huray, right, and Carol Hogan examine wreckage as part of the NTSB’s investigation of a helicopter crash near Calabasas
flowers and photos honor members of the Altobelli family outside Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif. Coach John Altobelli, 56, far right, his wife, Keri, 43, second from left, and his daughter Alyssa, 13, left, died in the helicopter crash
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, has sued the pilot, Island Express and the owner of the craft for negligence.
In the lawsuit, filed in February as a star-studded public memorial was held before 20,000 people at Staples Center, where Bryant played most of his career, Vanessa Bryant said the pilot shouldn’t have flown in those conditions and should have aborted the flight.
Zobayan’s brother responded in a court filing that Kobe Bryant knew the risks of helicopter flying and his survivors aren’t entitled to damages from the pilot’s estate. Island Express Helicopters Inc. has denied responsibility, calling the crash ‘an act of God’ that was beyond its control.
Autopsies released last month showed Zobayan did not have drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the crash. The coroner’s reports said all nine aboard died from the impact, not the fire that followed.
The others killed were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton.
Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.