LOS ANGELES (AP) — The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant didn’t have a recommended warning system to alert the pilot he was too close to land but it’s not clear it would have averted the crash that killed nine because he may have lost control as the aircraft plunged into a fog-shrouded mountain, federal officials said Tuesday.
Pilot Ara Zobayan had been climbing out of the clouds when the aircraft banked left and began a sudden and terrifying descent that lasted nearly a minute.
“This is a pretty steep descent at high speed,” said Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board. “We know that this was a high-energy impact crash.”
The aircraft was intact when it hit the ground, but the impact of the crash spread debris over more than 500 feet (150 meters). Remains of the final victims were recovered Tuesday and autopsies confirmed the deaths of Bryant, Zobayan and two other passengers, though the names of all nine have been publicly identified.
Determining what caused the crash will take months, but investigators may recommend that to avoid future crashes helicopters be equipped with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System that would have sounded an alarm if the aircraft was in danger of crashing.
While TAWS was not installed on the helicopter flying Bryant, the aircraft did have a warning system using GPS, said pilot Kurt Deetz, who flew the Lakers star dozens of times in the chopper over a two-year period ending in 2017.
NTSB investigator Bill English said they’re looking to document whether there was a GPS-based terrain avoidance system, but said it “doesn’t look to be part of the scenario.”
Zobayan, 50, was well-acquainted with the skies over Los Angeles and accustomed to flying Bryant and other celebrities.
He had spent thousands of hours ferrying passengers through one of the nation’s busiest air spaces and training students how to fly a helicopter. Friends and colleagues described him as skilled, cool and collected, the very qualities you want in a pilot.
Zobayan had flown the day before the crash on a route with the same departure and destination — Orange County to Ventura County. But on Sunday, he had to divert because of heavy fog.
His decision to proceed in deteriorating visibility, though, has experts and fellow pilots wondering if he flew beyond the boundaries of good judgment and whether pressure to get his superstar client where he wanted to go played a role in the crash.
Jerry Kidrick, a retired Army colonel who flew helicopters in Iraq and now teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, said there can be pressure to fly VIPs despite poor conditions, a situation he experienced when flying military brass in bad weather.
“The perceived pressure is, ‘Man, if I don’t go, they’re going to find somebody who will fly this thing,’ ” Kidrick said.
The chartered Sikorsky S-76B plowed into a cloud-shrouded hillside as the retired NBA star was on his way to a youth basketball basketball tournament in which Gianna was playing.
NTSB investigators have said Zobayan asked for and received permission from air traffic controllers to proceed in the fog. In his last radio transmission before the helicopter went down, he reported that he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer.
Investigators have not faulted his decision to press on or explained why he chose to do so.
Randy Waldman, a Los Angeles helicopter flight instructor who viewed tracking data of the flight’s path and saw a photo of the dense fog in the area at the time, speculated that Zobayan got disoriented in the clouds, a common danger for pilots.
He said Zobayan should have turned around or landed but may have felt the pressure to reach his destination, an occupational hazard for pilots often referred to as “got-to-get-there-itis” or “get-home-itis.”
“Somebody who’s a wealthy celebrity who can afford a helicopter to go places, the reason they take the helicopter is so they can get from A to B quickly with no hassle,” Waldman said. “Anybody that flies for a living there’s sort of an inherent pressure to get the job done because if too many times they go, ‘No, I don’t think I can fly, the weather’s getting bad or it’s too windy,’ ... they’re going to lose their job.”
Deetz said he often flew Bryant to games at Staples Center, and never remembered the Lakers star or his assistants pressing him to fly in bad weather.
“There was never any pressure Kobe put on any pilot to get somewhere — never, never,” Deetz said. “I think he really understood professionalism. `You do your job. I trust you.’ ”
Deetz said that he flew with Zobayan a half-dozen times and that he was familiar with airspace and terrain around Los Angeles and knew “the back doors” — alternative routes in case of trouble, such as changes in the weather.
Others who knew Zobayan praised him as unflappable and skilled at the controls.
“Helicopters are scary machines, but he really knew what he was doing,” said Gary Johnson, vice president of airplane parts manufacturer Ace Clearwater Enterprises, who had flown with Zobayan about 30 times in roughly eight years. “I wouldn’t do it unless he was the pilot.”