The pilot of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter flew through the clouds last year in an apparent violation of federal standards, US safety investigators have said.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said that pilot Ara Zobayan was flying under visual flight rules, which meant that he needed to be able to see where he was going.
Investigators say the pilot was likely to have become disorientated just before the helicopter crashed and killed Bryant and eight others.
Mr 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 on board.
The helicopter did not have the so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required.
The revelation during a hearing to announce the probable cause or causes of the crash followed plenty of finger-pointing.
Bryant’s widow 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 did not blame Bryant but said he knew about the risks of flying. The helicopter companies said 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 January 26, 2020, when the helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
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 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 (FAA) or the Coast Guard, which have repeatedly rejected some board safety recommendations after other disasters.
One possible recommendation following the investigation into the crash that killed Bryant could be for helicopters to have Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems, devices that signal when aircraft are in danger of crashing.
The helicopter Bryant was flying in did not have the system, which the NTSB has recommended as mandatory for helicopters. The FAA requires it only for air ambulances.
Politicians have sponsored the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act to mandate the devices on all helicopters carrying six or more passengers.
Former NTSB chairman James Hall said he hopes the FAA will require the systems as a result of the crash.
“Historically, it has required high-profile tragedies to move the regulatory needle forward,” he said.