Pilot in Kobe Bryant Crash Became Disoriented in Clouds, N.T.S.B. Finds

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The pilot in the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight other people last year flew into clouds in violation of federal rules and likely grew disoriented while flying through the fog in Southern California, investigators said on Tuesday.

Mr. Bryant, the retired star basketball player on the Los Angeles Lakers, was killed on Jan. 26, 2020, when the helicopter slammed into a fog-shrouded hill near Calabasas, Calif., erupting in flames. Everyone on board died, including the pilot, Mr. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna, two teenagers who were on her basketball team, some of the children’s parents and an assistant coach.

The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, was operating under rules that prohibited him from flying into the clouds, but that he had nonetheless continued. Mr. Zobayan had indicated that he was trying to climb above the clouds while he was actually rapidly falling, a sign that he was disoriented, investigators said.

The close relationship between Mr. Bryant and Mr. Zobayan, who had flown the basketball star and his children many times, may have made the pilot want to complete the flight despite the hazardous conditions, investigators said.

“This weather did not sneak up on the pilot,” Bill English, the lead investigator on the case, told board members. He said the pilot had crashed just minutes away from an airport where he could have landed. Once disoriented, the pilot seemingly did not reference his instruments, did not understand them or did not trust them, investigators said.

The five members of the N.T.S.B. board convened at 9:30 a.m. Eastern for the live-streamed meeting, and asked questions of the investigators who had spent the past year examining the crash, including inspecting the destroyed helicopter, interviewing members of the charter company and considering what could stop future, deadly accidents. The board is expected to release more findings at the close of its meeting.

The N.T.S.B. said shortly after the crash that there were no clear signs of significant engine failure, which gave more credence to the theory that Mr. Zobayan became disoriented in the heavy fog. He had written in a text message the night before the crash that the forecast looked to be “not the best” but, after waking in the morning, he wrote that it was “looking OK,” according to messages released last summer by the N.T.S.B.

Mr. Zobayan had requested special permission to fly through low-visibility areas. He was a widely respected pilot who had logged more than 1,200 hours in the S-76 helicopter and was certified to fly with the use of his instruments in low visibility. But the certification that the Federal Aviation Administration issued to the helicopter’s owner, Island Express Helicopters, only allowed its pilots to fly visually, meaning they must have at least a half-mile of daytime visibility and be able to see the ground.

Seconds before he crashed, according to the preliminary N.T.S.B. report, Mr. Zobayan told a flight controller he was trying to climb to 4,000 feet in an attempt to get above the clouds, but the helicopter was actually falling, investigators have said. The helicopter crashed at 9:45 a.m., about 39 minutes after it had taken off from John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana.

Mr. Bryant, who won five N.B.A. championships and two Olympic gold medals, had in recent years found joy in coaching Gianna, who went by Gigi and was the second-oldest of Mr. Bryant’s four daughters with his wife, Vanessa. Their helicopter was headed to the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, northwest of Los Angeles, which was rebranded with Mr. Bryant’s nickname when he partnered with the academy in 2018. Gianna’s team, which Mr. Bryant helped to coach, was scheduled to compete in a basketball tournament that day called the Mamba Cup.

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