The January 26 helicopter crash that took the life of the NBA champion Kobe Bryant and eight others on board was likely caused by pilot Ara Zobayan‘s poor decision-making and disorientation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Tuesday following their conclusion of investigations.
According to the NTSB, Zobayan became spatially disoriented after knowingly flying into thick clouds – though he was flying under visual flight rules (VFR), which means he needed to be able to see where he was going, USA Today reported. The board also said Zobayan had not been given the green light to fly in those conditions on the day of the crash, and he had been only been trained to use just his instruments when flying.
They also added that his poor decision making was likely caused by “self-induced pressure”, and mentioned “plan continuation bias” as another cause – meaning Zobayan was bent on completing the flight despite the poor visibility as he had almost reached the destination.
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“By most measures, the interviews that we conducted, the pilot was well thought of, well-regarded. He was the chief pilot. Had good credentials,” Robert Sumwalt, the NTSB chairman, said. “I think this illustrates that even good pilots can end up in bad situations.”
Besides highlighting Zobayan’s avoidable errors, the company that operated the flight, Island Express Helicopters, was also blamed for its “inadequate review and oversight of its safety management processes.” Despite the board finding lapses in the company’s safety protocols, the board said they were legal per the present Federal Aviation Administration rules, USA Today reported.
“We are not in any way concluding in this investigation that Island Express was not a safe operator,” lead investigator Bill English said.
Though the board also said Zobayan may have been able to maneuver his way out had he undergone further training and simulation exercises, he could have just simply landed the helicopter until it was safe to fly again. They also said it was unlikely Zobayan was under any form of pressure from Bryant or Island Express Helicopters to get them to their destination.
“There was an airport about 12 miles behind him, an actual airport, but you can also land a helicopter in many confined spaces,” Sumwalt said. “So there were opportunities along the way to have reversed the course and prevented this crash, by simply landing.”
Bryant, 41, was on board the Sikorsky S-76B with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, alongside seven others when the helicopter suddenly banked and plunged into the hills in southern California. Everyone on board died. The group was headed for a youth basketball match.