NTSB says Kobe Bryant chopper pilot experienced ‘spatial disorientation’

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The pilot flying Kobe Bryant’s chopper climbed to 4,000 feet in a tightening left turn and then descended rapidly in a left turn – a maneuver consistent with “spatial disorientation” in limited visibility, it was announced Tuesday.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said during a virtual hearing to announce the probable cause of the Southern California accident that the pilot was legally prohibited from flying into clouds but continued doing so nonetheless.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 attitude and acceleration when they cannot see the sky or landscape around them.

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.”

The board said previously an examination of the helicopter’s engines and rotors found no evidence of “catastrophic mechanical failure.”

The 41-year-old hoops legend, his daughter, Gianna, 13, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tourney at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on Jan. 26, 2020, when the chopper encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of LA.

Zobayan — flying under visual flight rules, or VFR –climbed sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 banked suddenly before plummeting into the Calabasas hills and bursting into flames.

The NTSB has said there was no sign of mechanical or engine failure.

NTSB press conference about Kobe Bryant helicopter crash

A still from the site of the helicopter crash involving Kobe Bryant shows a thick fog covering the hills where the chopper crashed

NTSB

NTSB press conference about Kobe Bryant helicopter crash

NTSB press conference about Kobe Bryant helicopter crash

A thick fog from the day of the Kobe Bryant crash where the pilot was not allowed to fly, per the NTSB report

NTSB

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Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, blamed the pilot. She and the relatives of other victims also faulted the companies that owned and operated the helicopter.

The companies said the weather was an act of God and blamed air-traffic controllers for the tragedy, which unleashed an outpouring of grief for the fallen Lakers star, launched a slew of lawsuits and prompted state and federal legislation.

In February 2020, the NTSB said the helicopter showed no evidence of “catastrophic internal” engine failure, and “was destroyed by impact forces and fire.”

Investigators previously revealed that the chopper lacked a Terrain Awareness and Warning System, or TAWS – which was not mandatory – that could have warned the pilot he was too close to the ground.

The NTSB has recommended TAWS as mandatory for helicopters. The devices cost upward of $35,000 per helicopter and require training and maintenance.

The Federal Aviation Administration only requires them for air ambulances.

Ara ZobayanAra ZobayanAP

Former NTSB Chairman James Hall said he hopes the FAA will require the systems as a result of the disaster.

“Historically, it has required high-profile tragedies to move the regulatory needle forward,” he said.

Federal lawmakers have sponsored the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act to mandate the system on all choppers carrying six or more passengers.

The NTSB, an independent federal agency that probes crashes but has no enforcement powers, is likely to make nonbinding recommendations to prevent future crashes.

It can only submit suggestions to bodies like the FAA or the Coast Guard, which have repeatedly rejected some of the board’s safety recommendations after other disasters.

Helicopter Association International discouraged what it called a “one solution fits all” method.

President and CEO James Viola said in a statement that mandating specific equipment to the entire industry is “ineffective” and “potentially hazardous.”

Even though Zobayan was flying at low altitude in a hilly area, the warning system may not have prevented the crash, said Ed Coleman, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor and safety science expert.

Kobe Bryant Reportedly Killed In Helicopter Crash In Calabasas Hills

Kobe Bryant Reportedly Killed In Helicopter Crash In Calabasas Hills

Wreckage of the crashed helicopter that was carrying former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna

Getty Images

NTSB Investigators Continue To Work On Site Of Kobe Bryant's Helicopter Crash

NTSB Investigators Continue To Work On Site Of Kobe Bryant's Helicopter Crash

Investigators work at the scene of the helicopter crash, where former NBA star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna died

Getty Images

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The terrain could have triggered the alarm to sound constantly, distracting Zobayan, or prompting him to lower its volume or ignore it, Coleman added.

Federal investigators have said the experienced pilot may have “misperceived” the angles at which he was descending and banking, which can occur when a pilot becomes disoriented in low visibility.

The others killed were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.

Island Express Helicopters, the company that owned the helicopter, was not certified to fly passengers under instrument flight rules — which is often used during inclement weather — though it was equipped to do so and the pilot was IFR-rated, according to previous reports.

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