NTSB: Pilot in Kobe Bryant helicopter crash may have been disoriented in fog

California

FILE – In this Jan. 27, 2020, file photo, released by the National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB investigator Carol Hogan examines wreckage as part of the NTSB’s investigation of a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif., that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others. Federal safety investigators bypassed aviation regulators on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, and urged leading helicopter manufacturers to install so-called black boxes that would help determine the cause of crashes such as the one that killed former NBA star Kobe Bryant.(James Anderson/National Transportation Safety Board via AP, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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 (1,220 meters) to get above clouds on Jan. 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 angles at which he was descending and banking, which can happen when a pilot becomes disoriented in low visibility.

“Calculated apparent angles at this time show that the pilot could have misperceived both pitch and roll angles,” one report stated. “During the final descent the pilot, responding to (air traffic control), stated that they were ‘climbing to four thousand.’”

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.

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 flights it canceled for Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard and celebrity Kylie Jenner.

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.

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 coordinated the flight, agreed.

Zobayan 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.

“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.

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