But the investigation into the crash found that he was going too fast as he approached the clouds and took none of those steps. Had the pilot opted to find somewhere to land, NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt told reporters, “this tragic crash could have been prevented.”
The five-member board met virtually Tuesday to formally adopt the probable cause of the crash, concluding a year-long investigation.
Investigators said that once Zobayan lost sight of the ground, he probably thought he was climbing when, in fact, the helicopter was plunging toward a hillside.
Investigators also concluded that Zobayan probably put pressure on himself to complete the flight because of Bryant’s celebrity and a friendship they had developed.
Bryant regularly traveled by helicopter to avoid the city’s notorious traffic, and on the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, he was taking his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and her friends and their family members to a youth basketball tournament.
The helicopter departed John Wayne Airport and was to fly across Los Angeles to an airport near the city of Thousand Oaks, where Bryant helped run a sports academy.
Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said it would be wrong to call what happened to Bryant an “accident,” instead using the word “crash.”
“We have a very good idea of why it happened and we absolutely know how to prevent these kind of crashes,” Landsberg said.
The board recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require simulated training for bad weather and flying by instruments to safely navigate areas of low visibility.
The board also reiterated recommendations that the FAA require helicopter operators like the one involved in the crash to have safety management programs and to install black-box data recorders.
“They continue to drag their feet and we’re pushing like crazy and will continue to push like crazy to get those recommendations implemented,” Sumwalt said.
The FAA said in a statement that it had begun writing rules to require the safety systems and was exploring the feasibility of requiring data recorders.
“The FAA has a close working relationship with the NTSB, and the two agencies share a common goal: promoting aviation safety and preventing aircraft accidents,” the agency said.
Island Express Helicopters, the company Zobayan flew for, was not authorized under federal rules to fly passengers through clouds. Although the board said that the company lacked a policy to ensure pilots were conducting proper risk assessments, investigators did not conclude that Zobayan was wrong to go ahead with the flight. Instead, they cited decisions he made in the air.
Investigators concluded that the pressure Zobayan put on himself to complete the flight would have grown as he got closer to the destination.
Landsberg pointed to similar pressure in several crashes involving celebrities, including when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson were killed in a plane crash in 1959.
“In all of those cases, you are dealing with someone who had star-power status and pilots desperately want to do a good job for the customer,” Landsberg said.
In the poor weather and low clouds, Zobayan had to get permission from air traffic controllers to pass through airspace with lower visibility than regulations typically allow. A witness told investigators that the Sikorsky S-76B disappeared into clouds as it followed the route of Highway 101 through a pass in the hills, a moment that also was recorded on video.
The investigation concluded that Zobayan had given himself little time to avoid the clouds.
“The pilot’s poor decision to fly at an excessive airspeed for the weather conditions was inconsistent with his adverse-weather avoidance training,” the investigation found.
Zobayan, Bryant’s longtime pilot, tried to pull up above the clouds, according to his radio messages and location tracking data, saying he was aiming to reach 4,000 feet. But data shows the helicopter already had started its fatal dive at that time.
In documents released in June, NTSB investigators indicated that Zobayan could have become disoriented in the clouds, thinking he was continuing to climb when he was descending. The inner ear, which helps humans balance, cannot tell the difference between forces created by gravity and movement, which can cause confusion when it’s difficult to see, NTSB specialist Marie Moler wrote.
A man who had been drinking coffee outside a nearby market wrote in an email to investigators that he heard the helicopter and recalled wondering why it would be flying in such bad weather.
“Then, all of a sudden, we heard a large BOOM,” he wrote. “We knew at that point that the helicopter had crashed. We could see the wreckage on the hillside, and it was on fire, spreading flames to the nearby grassy area.”
The aircraft had slammed into a hillside near Calabasas, leaving a 24-by-15-foot crater, according to the board.
Sumwalt said Zobayan was a well-regarded and experienced pilot and seemed to have suffered from what he called “sudden loss of judgment.”
“Even good pilots can end up in bad situations,” Sumwalt said. “That’s a lesson right there.
The board’s investigators started work in California the morning after the crash and began recovering debris scattered across the hillside.
They used a drone to re-create the flight path the helicopter followed in its final moments and gathered surveillance footage that captured the flight.
The sudden death of the longtime Los Angeles Laker stunned the world and sparked a public outpouring of grief in Los Angeles. Bryant, 41, has been memorialized in hundreds of murals in the city. He was posthumously inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Vanessa Bryant filed a lawsuit against Island Express and Zobayan’s estate. She alleged that they were responsible for the crash because Zobayan had not properly checked the weather before taking off and had flown into unsafe conditions.
In response, Island Express accused two air traffic controllers of fumbling a shift change and not properly helping to keep Zobayan safe. The Justice Department has asked a judge to dismiss the case against the controllers, who are federal employees, on procedural grounds.
The NTSB’s conclusions cannot be used as evidence in lawsuits, but the investigation concluded that any problems with the air traffic controllers were not factors in the crash.