US officials: Pilot error caused Kobe Bryant chopper crash

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FILE - In this July 26, 2018, file photo, former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine, Calif. Federal safety officials are expected to vote Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, on what likely caused the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others to crash into a Southern California hillside last year, killing all aboard. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, file)

LOS ANGELES – The pilot who crashed the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, killing all nine aboard, made a series of poor decisions that led him to fly blindly into a wall of clouds where he became so disoriented he thought he was climbing when the craft was plunging toward a Southern California hillside, federal safety officials said Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board primarily blamed pilot Ara Zobayan in the Jan. 26, 2020 crash that killed him along with Bryant, the basketball star’s daughter and six other passengers heading to a girls basketball tournament.

Zobayan, an experienced pilot, ignored his training, violated flight rules by flying into conditions where he couldn’t see and failed to take alternate measures, such as slowing down and landing or switching to auto-pilot, that would have averted the tragedy.

The NTSB said it was likely Zobayan felt pressure to deliver his star client to his daughter's game at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy. Officials believe Zobayan may have also felt “continuation bias,” an unconscious tendency among pilots to stick with the original plan despite changing conditions.

“The closer you get to the destination the more you think just maybe you can pull this off," NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said Tuesday.

The agency announced the long-awaited findings during a four-hour hearing pinpointing probable causes of what went awry in the 40-minute flight. The crash led to widespread public mourning for the retired basketball star and several lawsuits, and prompted state and federal legislation.

The agency also faulted Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.

When Zobayan decided to climb above the clouds, he entered a trap that has doomed many flights. Once a pilot loses visual cues by flying into fog or darkness, the inner ear can send erroneous signals to the brain that causes spatial disorientation. It's sometimes known as “the leans,” causing pilots to believe they are flying aircraft straight and level when they are banking.