The pilot of a helicopter that crashed, killing basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and all seven others on board, likely became so disorientated that he could not discern up from down, investigators say.
Pilot Ara Zobayan told air traffic controllers that he was climbing to 4000 feet to get above the clouds but due to the thick fog, he may have “misperceived” the angles and not realised the aircraft was descending.
That’s according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which concluded that Mr Zobayan went against his training and violated flight rules that required him to be able to see where he was going.
The US safety officials said he resultantly became “spatially disoriented”, which can happen to pilots in low visibility.
Mr Zobayan may have thought he was climbing into a “wall of cloud” when he unconsciously turned into a cloud-obscured hillside.
“It’s not like … the pilot was flying along, didn’t know where the hills are and blundered into the side of a hill,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
The helicopter carrying Bryant, his 13-year-old 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 January 26, 2020, before crashing into a Southern California hillside.
“We use the term crash rather than accident,” NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said.
“An accident (is) just something that’s unforeseen, unpredictable, if you will. Unfortunately this wasn’t.”
Investigators suspect the Island Express pilot, who had often flown for Bryant, may have felt pressured to go ahead with the risky journey because he wanted to perform for his high-profile client.
Mr Sumwalt said the board will discuss “whether the pilot faced pressure to complete the flight”.
“What were the expectations of the pilot under the company policy?,” he asked.
“Did he put pressure on himself, and what actions could he have taken to avoid flying into the clouds?”
Just before the crash, Mr Zobayan told flight controllers he was climbing in the helicopter and had nearly broken through the clouds.
But NTSB investigators said that the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter was in fact banking and beginning to descend at increasing magnitude.
They also said that Zobayan did not file a back-up flight plan and chose not to land at a nearby local airport to wait out the bad weather.
There was 184 aircraft crashes between 2010-2019 involving spatial disorientation, including 20 fatal helicopter crashes, the NTSB said.