Watch Live: NTSB says pilot in Kobe Bryant crash was disoriented in clouds

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.

How to watch the NTSB meeting on the Kobe Bryant crash today 

  • What: The National Transportation Safety Board holds a public board meeting on the probable cause of the fatal helicopter crash near Calabasas, California.  
  • Date: Tuesday, February 9, 2021 
  • Time: Board meeting started at 9:30 a.m. ET; NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt holds a virtual media availability at 2 p.m. ET to answer questions about the meeting, the NTSB’s investigation and safety recommendations issued by the board.
  • Location: Virtual
  • Online stream: Live on CBSN in the player above and on your mobile or streaming device 

The helicopter did not have the so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required.

On the morning of January 26, 2020, the helicopter departed from John Wayne Airport in Orange County and was bound for Camarillo, with the passengers heading to Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where he was set to coach his 13-year-old daughter Gianna in a tournament game, CBS Los Angeles reports. The helicopter crashed in Calabasas amid heavy fog.

An 11-page preliminary report from NTSB released about two weeks after the crash found no evidence of engine failure.

“Viewable sections of the engines showed no evidence of an uncontained or catastrophic internal failure,” the report read.

The report reiterated criticism, which was leveled by an NTSB official at the Federal Aviation Administration, that the helicopter did not have a black box. Under FAA regulations, almost all planes are required to have black boxes, but not helicopters.

“The helicopter was not equipped with a flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder (CVR) nor was it required to be for the accident flight,” the preliminary report read.

Zobayan, 50, had 8,200 hours of flight experience. The helicopter, manufactured in 1991, had logged 4,761 hours in the air and its maintenance and inspection records were all up to date, the NTSB found.

Documents the NTSB made public in June of last year supported the theory that Zobayan may have become disoriented while flying through heavy fog. The pilot’s last communication with air-traffic controllers before the crash was to tell them he was climbing to 4,000 feet to get above the cloud cover. But flight data showed the helicopter was actually descending and banking to the left, leading to the fatal crash.

Just prior to the crash, according to the NTSB’s preliminary report, the helicopter neared Burbank air space and Zobayan requested permission from air traffic control for special Visual Flight Rules (VFR) which would allow him to fly below the clouds.

He circled for about 12 minutes until getting approval.

According to the report, Zobayan contacted air-traffic controllers “and advised he was climbing above cloud layers.” An air-traffic controller “asked the pilot his intentions, to which he replied he was climbing to 4,000 feet. There were no further transmissions.”

Radar data indicate the helicopter was flying about 1,500 feet above the 101 Freeway near Las Virgenes, then began turning left and began descending, reaching a descent speed of more than 4,000 feet per minute.

Following the wreck, there has been a push to require all helicopters that carry six or more people have terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS), something which was not present on Bryant’s helicopter. Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman last year introduced the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act, which would direct the FAA and NTSB to place TAWS systems in all helicopters.

Along with the 41-year-old Kobe and his daughter Gianna, also killed in the crash was 56-year-old John Altobelli, a longtime coach of the Orange Coast College baseball team, his 46-year-old wife Keri and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa, who was a teammate of Gianna’s.

Note: Streaming plans are subject to change 

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