NTSB says Kobe Bryant helicopter pilot experienced ‘spatial disorientation’

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The pilot flying Kobe Bryant’s helicopter flew through the clouds in an apparent violation of federal regulations under visual flight rules and apparently became disoriented, NTSB safety regulators announced Tuesday in key determinations about the accident.

Ara Zobayan 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, they said.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Zobayan needed to be able to see where he was flying the Sikorsky S-76, which did not have so-called “black box” recording devices. They were not required.

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.

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.

NTSB press conference about Kobe Bryant helicopter crashNTSB press conference about Kobe Bryant helicopter crash

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