LOS ANGELES (AP) – The helicopter pilot who crashed in thick fog, killing Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers, reported that the plane is taking off while it is actually heading to ground, federal investigators said in documents released Wednesday .
Ara Zobayan sent to air traffic controllers by radio that he climbed 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) on January 26 to get above the clouds, when in fact the helicopter crashed into a hill where it crashed northwest of Los Angeles and all nine people killed on board.
The National Transportation Safety Board report said Zobayan may have “ misunderstood ” the angles at which he descended and banked, which can happen when a pilot becomes disoriented in poor visibility.
“Calculated apparent angles at this time show that the pilot could have misunderstood both pitch and roll angles,” said a report. “During the last descent, in response to (air traffic control), the pilot stated that they are” climbing four thousand. “
John Cox, an aviation safety advisor, said the helicopter’s erratic flight path – the plane slowed down, climbed and then slid sideways as it sank quickly – telltale signs that a pilot is becoming disoriented under conditions that make it difficult to see terrain or the horizon .
“He’s not the first to experience it,” said Cox. “It is a major cause of accidents.”
The 1,700 pages of reports do not provide a conclusion as to the cause of the crash, but compile factual reports. A final report on the cause will follow later.
The NTSB said there was no sign of engine failure in the Sikorsky S-76, and the rotor was spinning just before hitting the ground at about 184 mph (296 km / h). The impact created a crater and spread debris over an area the size of a football field in the hills of Calabasas. Flames engulfed the wreck.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six of their friends were murdered along with Zobayan.
About 45 minutes before takeoff, Zobayan had texted a group of people overseeing the flight that the weather looked “OK.” Richard Webb, owner of OC Helicopters, who booked the flight, agreed.
Zobayan took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 AM with the eight passengers he had flown to the same destination the day before: a girls’ basketball tournament at retired Lakers star Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.
When the helicopter hadn’t landed within an hour, a director of the company that piloted the plane began frantically searching for it in tracking software and had another company ax sent to search for it.
“The strange thing is that the tracker stopped at 9:45 am, which is not normal and we tried to reach Ara by radio,” said Whitney Bagge, vice president of Island Express Helicopters. “I kept refreshing the tracker while I prayed it was just broken.”
Four current and one former Island Express pilot were interviewed by NTSB investigators, and while some praised the company, others said the safety culture could have been better, according to reports.
A pilot said that Zobayan, the company’s main pilot, did not discuss the safety policy or the minimum visibility required to fly in certain weather. Another comment said that the company did not have a real safety management program.
However, the company said it had no problem canceling flights when the weather was bad. It named six flights it had canceled for Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard and one for celebrity Kylie Jenner who would have used the same helicopter.
Bryant’s personal assistant Cate Brady told NTSB investigators that he would never have complained or pushed back if his flights were canceled.
Island Express reported 150 canceled flights last year due to the weather. There were 13 cancellations due to the weather for 2020, all reported in the two days before Bryant’s deadly flight.
The afternoon before the flight – after returning the Bryants and their guests to Orange County – Zobayan had texted that he had just checked the weather for his next flight and that “it wasn’t tomorrow’s best day, but it’s not as bad as today. “
The flight that left Saturday morning was delayed 15 minutes by the weather, Brady said.
Brady said the original flight time for Sunday was 9.45am, but Bryant had moved it to 9am because he wanted to see another team play before his daughter’s game.
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, sued the pilot, Island Express and the vessel’s owner for negligence. In the lawsuit, which was filed in February because a star-studded public memorial was held for 20,000 people at Staples Center, where Bryant played most of his career, Vanessa Bryant said the pilot should not have been allowed to fly under those conditions and the flight should have ended. .
Zobayan’s brother replied in court that Kobe Bryant knew the risks of helicopter flying and that his relatives are not entitled to compensation from the pilot’s estate. Island Express Helicopters Inc. has denied responsibility and called the crash “an act of God” over which it has no control.
Autopsies released last month found Zobayan had no drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the crash. According to the coroner, all nine on board died from the impact, not from the fire that followed.
The other dead were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.
One of 40 documents posted by the NTSB includes a 215-page safety report that concludes with an article written by the former president of the Helicopter Association International entitled “Land the damned helicopter.”
The late Matt Zuccaro wrote the comment in 2013 after getting frustrated by reading NTSB crash reports, noting that most could have been avoided by a pilot who decided to land because the fuel ran out or the weather got worse.
“Why don’t pilots practice one of the most unique and valuable vertical flight opportunities, namely the damn helicopter landing!” Zuccaro wrote. “At a high crash rate, this simple action would break through the chain of events and the accident.”
The article was included without researchers’ comments.
Koenig reported from Dallas. Associated Press journalists Stefanie Dazio and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed.
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