U.S. investigators say pilot in Kobe Bryant crash was disoriented in clouds, meaning he lost sense of direction

U.S. National Transportation Board officials said on Tuesday that the helicopter crash that left basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi, and seven others dead, was likely caused by the pilot’s “spatial disorientation.”

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The NTSB said initially there was no sign of mechanical failure and that the crash appeared to be an accident.

The nine passengers were killed when the helicopter they were on crashed into a hillside in Southern California in January 2020, as they flew from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament in Ventura County within California.

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Kobe Bryant in 2010. (Toni L. Sandys/The Post)
Kobe Bryant in 2010. (Toni L. Sandys/The Post)

Victims of Kobe Bryant helicopter crash:

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

From left to right: Christina Mauser, John and Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli
From left to right: Christina Mauser, John and Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli

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The helicopter, which was being flown by Ara Zobayan, had encountered thick fog near Calabasas. Zobayan, who had 10 years of experience flying in the area, climbed sharply before descending suddenly and plunging into the hillside.

Pilot Ara Zobayan, mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester
Pilot Ara Zobayan, mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester

“The pilot took pride in these positions with the boat both the client and island Express. They had a good relationship with the client and did not want to disappoint them by not completing the flight. The self-induced pressure can adversely affect pilot decision-making and judgment, the official said, an insinuation that there was likely pressure on the pilot to complete the trip despite the weather conditions because of the relationship he had with his client. NTSB said there was no added outside pressure on the pilot to make the trip.

What NTSB said about Kobe Bryant helicopter crash:

According to the NTSB, while air traffic control asked the pilot to “ident” or to put his hand to the center of the instrument panel and press a button, it introduced “operational distraction from his primary task of monitoring the flight instruments” since he lost visual sight in the clouds.

“The resulting dissent and acceleration were conductive for the pilot to experience a summative graphic illusion in which he will incorrectly perceive that the helicopter was climbing when it was descending.

The helicopter continued this deep dissent the pilot was either not referencing the instruments or having difficulty interpreting or believing them due to the compelling vestibular illusions and he did not successfully recover the helicopter,” the NTSB official said.

NTSB said there have been 184 fatal aircraft accidents resulting from spatial disorientation, 20 of them involving helicopters. 

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