USA TODAY International Edition

Kobe Bryant crash caused by pilot’s poor decisions

The NTSB has released its conclusion­s about the accident that killed the NBA superstar.

- Tom Schad

The National Transporta­tion Safety Board concluded Tuesday that pilot Ara Zobayan’s poor decision- making is the likely cause of the helicopter crash that killed NBA star Kobe Bryant and eight others last year.

The NTSB found that Zobayan was flying under visual flight rules, which means he had to be able to see where he was going, but he decided to fly into thick clouds, where he became spatially disoriente­d. While he had been trained to fly using only his instrument­s, Zobayan had not received clearance to fly in such conditions that day.

The board identified “self- induced pressure” as a likely contributi­ng factor to Zobayan’s poor decision- making, as well as “plan continuati­on bias” – that he felt compelled to finish the flight because he was close to its destinatio­n.

“By most measures, the interviews that we conducted, the pilot was well thought of, well- regarded. He was the chief pilot. Had good credential­s,” NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said during a four- hour board meeting about the findings. “I think this illustrate­s that even good pilots can end up in bad situations.”

Investigat­ors also attributed fault to the company that operated the flight, Island Express Helicopter­s, citing its “inadequate review and oversight of its safety management processes.” They noted, however, that the company’s safety protocols – while flawed – were legal under current Federal Aviation Administra­tion rules.

“We are not in any way concluding in this investigat­ion that Island Express was not a safe operator,” lead investigat­or Bill English said.

Anthony Brickhouse, a former NTSB investigat­or who is now an associate professor of aerospace safety at Embry

Riddle Aeronautic­al University, said the NTSB’s findings were not surprising, given the publicly available informatio­n about the case. The edge between flying by sight and flying by instrument­s is often “a deadly event,” he said.

“Once spatial disorienta­tion occurs, things happen pretty quickly and loss of control is the likely result,” Brickhouse wrote in an email.

The long- awaited findings from the NTSB, a government agency tasked with investigat­ing transporta­tion accidents, come a little more than a year after the Sikorsky S- 76B helicopter crashed into the hills near Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26, 2020.

All nine people on board died in the crash, including Bryant and his 13- yearold daughter, Gianna; John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; Christina Mauser, an assistant coach; and Zobayan. The group had been traveling to Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game.

Experts and investigat­ive records had long pointed to spatial disorienta­tion as a likely cause of the crash. In the absence of visual cues, pilots can sometimes be deceived by gravitatio­nal forces, feeling like they are flying one way as they bank another.

From 2010 to 2019, the NTSB found 184 fatal aircraft crashes related to spatial disorienta­tion, including 20 that involved helicopter­s.

While additional training and simulation exercises might have helped Zobayan in this instance, NTSB board members repeatedly questioned the pilot’s decision to fly into hilly terrain in poor visibility in the first place. He could have landed the helicopter, perhaps at nearby Van Nuys Airport, and waited for conditions to improve.

“There was an airport about 12 miles behind him, an actual airport, but you can also land a helicopter in many confined spaces,” Sumwalt said in a news conference. “So there were opportunit­ies along the way to have reversed the course and prevented this crash, by simply landing.”

The NTSB began investigat­ing the crash shortly after it occurred. Investigat­ors conducted nearly two dozen interviews and collected more than 1,800 pages of evidence, including weather analyses, maintenanc­e records, training logs, witness reports and emails.

They even pulled video footage from cameras stationed behind youth baseball fields in the area to determine visibility that morning.

The basic facts of the flight came together quickly: The aircraft departed John Wayne- Orange County Airport just after 9 a. m. local time, flew north, circled to make way for air traffic at a nearby airport and then followed a highway into the hills near Calabasas. It was a foggy morning, and as the helicopter entered more variable terrain, Zobayan informed air traffic controller­s that he would climb to a higher altitude to get above the clouds. Instead, the helicopter banked left and sped toward the ground.

Bryant, who was 41, had become well- known for traveling by helicopter both during his NBA career with the Lakers and in retirement. He viewed it as a way to avoid the often- gridlocked traffic in Los Angeles and the surroundin­g area. He had previously flown in the aircraft that crashed and traveled regularly with Zobayan.

Within weeks of the crash, the NTSB had determined there was no evidence of catastroph­ic engine failure and focused on the weather and the actions of the pilot.

On Tuesday, the board also indicated that there is no evidence to suggest Zobayan was pressured by the company or Bryant to complete the flight. The NTSB also said the air traffic controller­s on duty that day did not contribute in any way to the crash.

Those issues had become significant in federal and state courts, where the victims’ families have filed a series of lawsuits against the helicopter company and, in some cases, Zobayan’s estate. The helicopter company later countersue­d the air traffic controller­s in what experts believe is an effort to spread liability.

Though the NTSB’s probable cause determinat­ion is not admissible in court, it usually helps shape the trajectory of related lawsuits, according to Christophe­r Odell, a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter and expert in aviation litigation.

“( The NTSB’s findings) give a lot of guidance to the parties,” Odell said last month. “The jury can come out a different way than the NTSB on the facts, in terms of who is responsibl­e. But the NTSB is very good at its job, and investigat­ors are very experience­d and highly trained, and they’ll probably get to the bottom of it.”

Ultimately, the purpose of an NTSB investigat­ion is to develop safety recommenda­tions and propose them to the FAA, which then chooses whether to adopt them.

In this instance, the board recommende­d that charter helicopter­s be required to use flight data monitoring programs and safety management systems, and pilots be required to complete additional scenario- based training and decision- making training. The NTSB also generally recommends that helicopter­s have terrain awareness and warning systems, though investigat­ors said TAWS wouldn’t have altered the outcome in this particular crash.

Sumwalt noted that it has made several of these recommenda­tions to the FAA before and the agency has ignored them.

“I want to point out that we issue and reiterate safety recommenda­tions when there’s blood on the ground,” he said. “We don’t just come up with these recommenda­tions because ‘ Oh gosh, that would be a really good idea.’ We issue these recommenda­tions when bad things happen. The FAA has dragged their feet so many times on this issue, and others. And we hope that we will finally get their attention.”

 ?? SANDY HOOPER/ USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Fans gathered last year at L. A. Live to pay their respects to former Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who died along with seven other people in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020.
SANDY HOOPER/ USA TODAY SPORTS Fans gathered last year at L. A. Live to pay their respects to former Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who died along with seven other people in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA