LOS ANGELES – As helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan encountered a cloud bank and decided to try to climb out of it, he was likely worried about getting his star client, Kobe Bryant, his daughter and six others to a girls basketball tournament, federal safety investigators said.
That decision cost them all their lives, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday in releasing long-awaited findings of the Jan. 26, 2020, crash that killed all nine aboard.
The NTSB primarily blamed Zobayan for 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.
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 landing or switching to auto-pilot, that would have averted the tragedy.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said the accident illustrated that even good pilots can make bad decisions.
“Here is a case where a pilot who is well regarded apparently got into a very bad situation,” Sumwalt said. “The scenario we believe happened he is flying along, he realizes that he’s sort of getting boxed in with visibility and then he must have made the decision, ‘You know what, I’m just going to punch up through these clouds and get on top.’”
The board said it was likely he felt self-induced pressure to deliver Bryant to the destination. It's not the first time investigators have seen that happen with celebrities. Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg cited separate aircraft crashes that killed musicians Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Aaliyah.
"In all of those cases you are dealing with someone of great star power status and pilots who desperately want to do a good job for the customer," Landsberg said. “My sense is that the preponderance of the evidence, let’s call it 51%, indicate this pilot really wanted to get where he was going.”