Takeaways from the NTSB in the Kobe Bryant Crash

Wednesday, February 17th, 2021

A Crash that Could Have Been Avoided

Last Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced its findings on the probable cause of the helicopter accident last year that claimed the lives of basketball legend Kobe Bryant and eight others.

While every fatal crash is tragic, the death of a high-profile athlete / celebrity always brings extra media attention.

Since the fatal crash on Jan. 26, 2020, the team of safety investigators analyzed every element surrounding the flight conditions and pilot Ara Zobayan. Tuesday’s determination from the board as that the pilot’s disorientation — from low visibility largely influenced by the weather conditions in the area — and decision-making in the final minutes led to the tragic crash.

The NTSB said the Island Express charter pilot Ara Zobayan pushed the limits of bad weather flying rules, climbed into clouds, became disoriented about the helicopter’s position relative to the horizon, and made a descending left turn into a hillside.

“The helicopter was in a left bank rapid climb, its bank increased and it entered a tighter left turn that diverged away from U.S. 101.  The increasing bank would exacerbate the aspects of ‘the leans,'” a board member said. “The resulting descent and acceleration were conducive for the pilot to experience a summative graphic illusion in which he would incorrectly perceive that the helicopter was climbing when it was descending. As 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.”

“Even good pilots can end up in bad situations,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said Tuesday, referencing the pilot’s willingness to fly in poor weather conditions. He said the helicopter could have landed at a nearby airport or even in a parking lot “all the way up to the point where [the pilot] entered the clouds.”

“This pilot really wanted to get where he was going,” said NTSB Vice Chair Bruce Landsberg. He termed the incident a crash, and not an accident.

As pilots, we need to juggle the stresses of demanding schedules, tight budgets and sometimes demanding clients or passengers. However, rigorous training can prevent pilots from making critical mistakes that lead to tragedy, and this crash unfortunately could have been prevented.

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