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Safety Board Report Shows Pilot Lost Control In Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There's new information about the helicopter crash that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others last year. The pilot violated federal air safety rules when he flew through fog and clouds. That is according to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation, which determined the pilot likely became disoriented and lost control. As NPR's Russell Lewis reports, this crash highlights an ongoing problem in aviation.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: When the pilot of the helicopter, Ara Zobayan, took off from Santa Ana, Calif., in January 2020, the weather wasn't great. A low fog and marine layer was already thickening and continued to deteriorate as the flight progressed. Here's NTSB lead investigator Jim English (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM ENGLISH: In this situation, this weather did not sneak up on the pilot very quickly. It was a condition that was very stable.

LEWIS: The charter pilot pressed on, talking to air traffic controllers and bypassing airports where he could have landed. Zobayan had flown Kobe Bryant and his family before, and investigators say he possibly felt pressure to continue to the destination - a youth basketball tournament. The pilot was highly experienced, but when he entered the clouds, as he was legally prevented from doing, he started a sharp climb and a left-hand turn, lost control and spiraled into the hills near Calabasas. At the hearing, NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg was frustrated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUCE LANDSBERG: We pretty well know what happened. We have a very good idea of why it happened, and we absolutely know how to prevent these kinds of crashes.

LEWIS: Investigators have zeroed in on spatial disorientation as the likely cause of this crash. That's a confusing phenomenon when a pilot is unable to interpret what the flight instruments are showing compared to what a pilot physically thinks the aircraft is doing. It can be so bad that a pilot can't tell the difference between up and down. The NTSB says a helicopter crash similar to this one has happened about every six months for the past decade. Richard McSpadden of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is not sure why these keep occurring.

RICHARD MCSPADDEN: That's the difficulty - is getting pilots to recognize where they are. You're right on the cusp of a potentially catastrophic decision here, and getting them to recognize that situation is what we're struggling with.

LEWIS: The NTSB made many safety recommendations, including better decision-making about weather and improved training for spatial disorientation. It's up to the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt them.

Russell Lewis, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "LIPKINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.