NTSB faults pilot in fatal crash that killed Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna

The helicopter pilot who crashed into a Calabasas, Calif., hillside in January 2020 — killing himself, Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers — reportedly committed preventable errors that resulted in the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday released an abstract of its findings from a yearlong report into the crash, concluding that pilot Ara Zobayan violated his training and several safety protocols when he flew into a wall of clouds. NTSB investigators found Zobayan became spatially disoriented inside, causing him to bank left at a decreasing altitude when he thought he was ascending above the clouds.

The NTSB noted that Zobayan’s “poor decision” to fly the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter into the clouds was likely “influenced by his self-induced pressure to fulfill the client’s travel needs.” Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other passengers were en route to a girls basketball tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park, Calif.

“Unfortunately, we continue to see these same issues influence poor decision making among otherwise experienced pilots in aviation crashes,” said Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the NTSB. “Had this pilot not succumbed to the pressures he placed on himself to continue the flight into adverse weather, it is likely this accident would not have happened. A robust safety management system can help operators like Island Express provide the support their pilots need to help them resist such very real pressures.”

Below is an excerpt from the NTSB’s report, edited for length and clarity:

“At 0944:34 (about two minutes before the accident) … the pilot announced to an air traffic control facility that he was initiating a climb to get the helicopter ‘above the (cloud) layers,” and the helicopter immediately began climbing at a rate of about 1,500 feet per minute. About the same time, the helicopter began a gradual left turn. … About 36 seconds later and while still climbing, the helicopter began to turn more tightly to the left. …


The helicopter reached an altitude of about 2,370 feet mean sea level … at 0945:15, then it began to descend rapidly in a left turn to the ground. At 0945:17 (while the helicopter was descending), the air traffic controller asked the pilot to ‘say intentions,’ and the pilot replied that the flight was climbing to 4,000 feet msl. A witness near the accident site first heard the helicopter then saw it emerge from the bottom of the cloud layer in a left-banked descent about 1 or 2 seconds before impact.”

The board noted that Zobayan did not provide an alternate flight plan in his flight risk analysis form, completed about two hours before the helicopter’s departure. It also found he wasn’t unqualified to fly, nor was he impaired due to a medical condition, alcohol, other drugs or fatigue; it also concluded there was no helicopter malfunction or failure, and no pressure from Bryant or Island Express Helicopters Inc. — the air charter broker — to complete the flight.

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