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Federal officials reveal cause of Kobe Bryant helicopter crash

The National Transportation Safety Board said the crash happened because of ‘spatial disorientation’ by the pilot

In this Jan. 26, 2020, file photo, firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. The National Transportation Safety Board said the crash happened because of ‘spatial disorientation’ by the pilot
In this Jan. 26, 2020, file photo, firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. The National Transportation Safety Board said the crash happened because of “spatial disorientation” by the pilot.
Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that the tragic helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others in 2020 was caused from “spatial disorientation” by the pilot, according to The Associated Press.

  • The NTSB said the pilot was likely disoriented from flying through clouds, ESPN reported.

What happened?

Per KGET.com, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the pilot was “flying under visual flight orders or VFR which legally prohibited him from penetrating the clouds” but he still flew through the clouds.

  • “The resulting descent and acceleration were conducive for the pilot to experience a somatogravic illusion in which he would incorrectly perceive that the helicopter was climbing when it was descending. The helicopter continued this deep descent the pilot was either not referencing the instruments or having difficulty interpreting or believing them due to the compelling vestibular illusions and he did not successfully recover the helicopter,” the NTSB official said in a virtual meeting Tuesday, which focused on the cause of the crash, according to Fox News.

As The Associated Press reports, the NTSB said there was no sign of mechanical failure and the crash appeared to be an accident.

NTSB officials said the pilot — Ara Zobayan — “likely added self-pressure on the pilot to complete the trip despite the weather conditions due to his relationship with the client,” according to Fox News.

  • “The pilot took pride in these positions with both the client and Island Express. They had a good relationship with the client and likely did not want to disappoint them by not completing the flight. This self-induced pressure can adversely affect pilot decision-making and judgment,” the official said, according to Fox News.

What’s next?

According to Reuters, Sumwalt, the NTSB chairman, said the agency will review whether or not “the pilot faced pressure to complete the flight. … What were the expectations of the pilot under the company policy? Did he put pressure on himself and what actions could he have taken to avoid flying into the clouds?”

  • Per Reuters, he also said the board “will discuss the phenomenon of spatial disorientation, which is the powerful sensation that confuses pilots who lose visual reference and what types of training can be effective in countering this effect.”
  • Per The Associated Press, “the board is likely to make nonbinding recommendations to prevent future crashes.”

Vanessa Bryant — who reportedly filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company that operated the helicopter that crashed back in February 2020, as I wrote for the Deseret News — has yet to comment on the news.