The National Transportation Safety Board investigators described the crash as preventable, the pilot as experienced, and his employer as a generally safe charter operation. They spoke at a meeting of the NTSB to settle on an official cause of the January 26, 2020, crash that killed Bryant, his daughter, the pilot, and six others.
“Even good pilots can end up in bad situations,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
The meeting, still underway Tuesday, will lay out possible long-lasting safety recommendations as a result of the crash, including more strident calls for increased safety training for helicopter pilots on how to avoid inadvertently flying into clouds. The responsibility then falls to regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as helicopter charter companies and pilots, to act on the recommendations.
“We use the term crash rather than accident,” NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said. “An accident (is) just something that’s unforeseen, unpredictable, if you will. Unfortunately this wasn’t.”
In the meeting, investigators said Island Express pilot Ara Zobayan may have felt pressured to perform for a high-profile client and continued flying into deteriorating weather conditions. Zobayan developed a “very close” friendship with Bryant, investigator Dujuan Sevillian said, a type of relationship that “can lead to self induced pressure” to fly in risky conditions.
NTSB board member Thomas Chapman pushed back on officially concluding that pressure played a role in the crash, although he acknowledged pilots may contend with a “tendency to want to please” the influential person who charters their services.
They said he climbed into what witnesses described as a “wall of cloud,” possibly became disoriented, and unconsciously turned into a cloud-obscured hillside he knew was there. Pilots call that type of confusion spacial disorientation.
“It’s not like … the pilot was flying along, didn’t know where the hills are and blundered into the side of a hill,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
Island Express declined to comment to CNN on Tuesday.
Investigators said the helicopter was equipped to fly into clouds with the pilot operating solely in reference to the instruments — known as Instrument Flight Rules or IFR– but charter company Island Express’ agreement with the FAA allowed only flights where the pilot could maintain visual contact with the ground, known as Visual Flight Rules or VFR.
“It would seem to be that these flights should have been operated under IFR,” Sumwalt said.
All 9 people on board perished
In addition to Bryant, 41, and Gianna, 13, the crash claimed the lives of her teammates Payton Chester, 13, and Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Payton’s mother, Sarah Chester, 45; Alyssa’s parents Keri Altobelli, 46, and John Altobelli, 56; assistant coach Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Zobayan, 50.
Bryant, a 41-year-old 18-time All Star who won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, had made the trip to Thousand Oaks several times as a coach for the academy.
Pilot appeared to become disoriented in fog, previous documents show
The first 911 call for the flight came in at 9:47 a.m., Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said.
The helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, and parts were found scattered across an area that stretched up to 600 feet, the NTSB said days after the incident.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an invasion-of-privacy bill in September which would make it illegal for first responders to share photos of a deceased person at a crime scene “for any purpose other than an official law enforcement purpose.”
Under the new “Kobe Bryant Act,” which went into effect this year, a first responder who is found guilty of the misdemeanor crime may be fined up to $1,000 per violation.
CNN’s Jason Hanna contributed to this report.