Kobe Bryant‘s helicopter pilot flew into the clouds when he shouldn’t have and became disoriented before crashing in California last year, killing the former NBA superstar and everyone else onboard, transportation officials said at a hearing on the cause of the crash on Tuesday.
Federal standards dictated that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, should have been flying under visual flight rules that day, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Robert Sumwalt said at the hearing. That means he was “legally prohibited” from flying up into clouds where he could not see.
Zobayan did fly up into the clouds, where he became disoriented before dipping sharply and smashing the aircraft into a hillside in Calabasas, Sumwalt said.
Sumwalt offered his analysis on Tuesday during an NTSB hearing to vote on the likely cause or causes of the crash, which killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna, the pilot Zobayan and six others on Jan. 26, 2020.
The board “will discuss whether the pilot faced pressure to complete the flight …. What were the expectations of the pilot under the company policy? Did he put pressure on himself and what actions could he have taken to avoid flying into the clouds?” Sumwalt said.
The board has said pilots can become confused about an aircraft’s altitude and acceleration when they cannot see the sky or landscape around them — which is why visual flight rules are put into effect.
Sumwalt said the board “will discuss the phenomenon of spatial disorientation, which is the powerful sensation that confuses pilots who lose visual reference and what types of training can be effective in countering this effect.”
Board members said Zobayan went against his training by venturing into the clouds, and that he told flight controllers he was climbing when he was in fact descending.
“The pilot doesn’t know which way is up,” NTSB investigator Bill English said.
The hearing comes after a year filled with finger-pointing, many lawsuits and few answers, in part due to the absence of a “black box” recorder to document the final moments of the doomed Sikorsky S-76 helicopter.
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, has long blamed Zobayan for the crash. She and relatives of the other victims have also blamed the company that owned and operated the helicopter.
“I think the whole world is watching because it’s Kobe,” Ed Coleman, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor and aircraft safety science expert, told the Associated Press.
The NTSB has said that there was no evidence of a mechanical failure on the helicopter that might have caused the crash.
Bryant, his daughter Gianna, two of her teammates and their families were en route to a youth girls’ basketball tournament when the aircraft crashed early last year.
The incident shocked the world and triggered a massive outpouring of sympathy for the recently retired athlete, who was an 18-time NBA all-star.
The NTSB hearing is expected to produce non-binding recommendations to prevent similar crashes in the future.
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press