Probe: Kobe Bryant pilot may have been disoriented in fog before crash

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Helicopter pilot crashed in thick fog, killing Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers, said the plane was on its way to the ground, federal investigators said in documents released Wednesday.Ara Zobayan radioed air traffic controllers that he was climbing 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) to pass above the clouds on January 26 when, in fact, the helicopter was diving toward a hill where it crashed northwest of Los Angeles, killing nine people a plank.

The National Transportation Safety Board report indicates that Zobayan may have “misunderstood” the angles from which he was descending and tilting, which can happen when a driver becomes disoriented in low visibility.

“The apparent angles calculated at this time show that the pilot could have misunderstood the angles of pitch and roll,” said a report. “During the final descent, the pilot, responding to (air traffic control), stated that he” was climbing to four thousand “.”

Aviation safety consultant John Cox said the helicopter’s irregular flight path – the plane slowed, climbed, then tilted to one side while sinking fast – are signs indicative of a disoriented pilot in conditions that make it difficult to see the terrain or the horizon. .

“He is not the first person to experience it,” said Cox. “It is a major cause of accidents. ”

The 1,700 pages of reports do not offer a conclusion on what caused the accident, but compile factual reports. A final case report is to be submitted later.

The NTSB said there was no sign of engine failure in the Sikorsky S-76 and that the rotor was turning just before touching the ground at around 184 mph (296 km / h). The impact caused a crater and debris scattered over an area the size of a football field in the hills of Calabasas. Flames engulfed the wreckage.

Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six of their friends were killed, as well as Zobayan.

About 45 minutes before takeoff, Zobayan had texted a group of people supervising the flight indicating that the weather seemed “OK”. Richard Webb, owner of OC Helicopters, who booked 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 women’s basketball tournament at the Lakers’ star Mamba Sports Academy at Thousand Oaks.

When the helicopter had not landed in less than an hour, an executive from the company that flew the plane began frantically searching for it on tracking software and had another company dispatched to find it.

“The strange thing, however, is that the tracker stopped at 9.45 am which is not normal and we were trying to reach Ara by radio,” said Whitney Bagge, vice president of Island Express Helicopters . “I kept refreshing the tracker praying that it would just be broken. ”

Four current investigators and a former Island Express pilot were interviewed by NTSB investigators and while some praised the company, others said the safety culture could have been better, according to reports.

One pilot said that Zobayan, the company’s chief pilot, did not discuss the safety policy or the minimum visibility required to fly in certain weather. Another comment indicated that the company had no real safety management program.

The company said, however, that it had no problem canceling flights if the weather was bad. He cited six canceled flights for the Los Angeles star Clippers Kawhi leonard and one for celebrity Kylie Jenner who allegedly used the same helicopter.

Cate Brady, a personal assistant to Bryant, told investigators at the NTSB that he would never complain or push back if his flights were canceled.

Last year, Island Express reported 150 flight cancellations due to weather conditions. There were 13 cancellations due to weather conditions for 2020, all recorded in the two days before Bryant’s fatal flight.

The afternoon before the flight – after the Bryants and their guests returned to Orange County – Zobayan had sent a text message saying that he had just checked the weather for his next flight and that “it was not not the best day tomorrow but it’s not as bad as it is today. ”

The flight departure on Saturday morning was delayed by 15 minutes due to the weather, said Brady.

Brady said the original flight time for Sunday was at 9:45 am, but Bryant postponed it to 9:00 am because he wanted to see another team play before his daughter’s game.

Bryant’s widow Vanessa sued the pilot, Island Express and the owner of the craft for negligence. In the lawsuit filed in February when a star-studded public memorial was held in front of 20,000 people at the Staples Center, where Bryant has played most of his career, Vanessa Bryant said the pilot would not have had to fly in these conditions and should have stopped the flight. .

Zobayan’s brother responded in a court case that Kobe Bryant was aware of the risks of helicopter flight and its survivors are not entitled to damages from the pilot’s estate. Island Express Helicopters Inc. has denied responsibility, calling the accident “force majeure” beyond its control.

Autopsies released last month showed that Zobayan had no drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the accident. Coroner’s reports indicate that the nine people on board died as a result of the impact, not the ensuing fire.

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

One of 40 documents published by the NTSB includes a 215-page safety report that ends with an article written by the former president of the Helicopter Association International entitled “Land the damned helicopter”.

The late Matt Zuccaro wrote the commentary in 2013 after being frustrated with reading the NTSB crash reports and noted that most could have been prevented by a pilot deciding to land when fuel was low or weather conditions were deteriorating.

“Why don’t pilots exercise one of the most unique and valuable capabilities in vertical flight – that is, landing the damn helicopter!” Wrote Zuccaro. “In a high percentage of accidents, this simple act would break the chain of events and prevent the accident. ”

The article was included without any comment from the investigators.



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