LOS ANGELES (AP) — U.S. safety investigators said Tuesday that the pilot of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter flew through clouds last year in an apparent violation of federal standards and likely became disoriented just before the helicopter crashed, killing Bryant and eight others.
Pilot Ara Zobayan was flying under visual flight rules, which meant that he needed to be able to see where he was going, Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said during a hearing to specify the likely cause or causes of the crash.
Zobayan piloted the aircraft to climb sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Southern California hills below, killing all aboard.
The helicopter did not have, and was not required to have, so-called black-box recording devices.
The revelation during the hearing followed plenty of finger pointing.
Bryant’s widow had blamed the pilot. She and relatives of the other victims also faulted the companies that owned and operated the helicopter.
The brother of the pilot didn’t blame Bryant but said he knew about the risks of flying. The helicopter companies have said that foggy weather before the helicopter hit the ground was an act of God and blamed air traffic controllers.
The federal hearing focused on the long-awaited probable cause or causes of the tragedy that unleashed worldwide grief for the retired basketball star, launched several lawsuits and prompted state and federal legislation.
“I think the whole world is watching because it’s Kobe,” said Ed Coleman, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor and aircraft safety science expert.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on Jan. 26, 2020, when the helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into hills below, killing all nine aboard instantly before flames engulfed the wreckage.
There was no sign of mechanical failure and the crash was believed to be an accident, the National Transportation Safety Board has said previously.
The board during its hearing Tuesday is likely to make nonbinding recommendations to prevent future crashes when it meets remotely and announces its findings about the crash.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates transportation-related crashes but has no enforcement powers.
It submits suggestions to agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration or the Coast Guard, which have repeatedly rejected some board safety recommendations after other disasters.
Over the past year, experts have speculated that the crash could lead to requiring Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems, devices that signal when aircraft are in danger of crashing, on helicopters.