LOS ANGELES —
U.S. safety investigators said Tuesday the pilot of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter flew through the clouds last year in an apparent violation of federal standards, and likely became disoriented just before the helicopter crashed and killed Bryant and eight others.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that pilot Ara Zobayan was flying under visual flight rules, which meant that he needed to be able to see where he was going.
Zobayan piloted the aircraft to climb sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Southern California hills below, killing all aboard.
The helicopter did not have the so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required.
The revelation during a hearing to announce the probable cause or causes of the crash followed plenty of finger-pointing.
Bryant’s widow blamed the pilot. She and relatives of the other victims also faulted the companies that owned and operated the helicopter.
The brother of the pilot didn’t blame Bryant but said he knew about the risks of flying. The helicopter companies said foggy weather before the helicopter hit the ground was an act of God and blamed air traffic controllers.
The federal hearing focused on the long-awaited probable cause or causes of the tragedy that unleashed worldwide grief for the retired basketball star, launched several lawsuits and prompted state and federal legislation.
“I think the whole world is watching because it’s Kobe,” said Ed Coleman, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor and aircraft safety science expert.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on Jan. 26, 2020, when the helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
Pilot Ara Zobayan climbed sharply and nearly broke through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Calabasas hills below, killing all nine aboard instantly before flames engulfed the wreckage.
There was no sign of mechanical failure and the crash was believed to be an accident, the National Transportation Safety Board has said previously.
The board on Tuesday is likely to make nonbinding recommendations to prevent future crashes when it meets remotely and announces its findings about the crash.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates transportation-related crashes but has no enforcement powers.