According to the Associated Press, the National Transportation Safety Board said that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, disregarded his training when he flew into thick clouds, where he became disoriented and dove into a Southern California hillside.
The NTSB—an independent government agency that’s responsible for investigating transportation-related crashes—said that due to poor visibility, Zobayan likely couldn’t discern up from down. They said that during the 40-minute flight, he disregarded his training and breached federal regulations.
The agency shared its discoveries during a hearing on Tuesday, following an investigation into how the crash happened. Officials said they think Zobayan experienced “the leans,” a spatial disorientation that takes place in the inner ear and “causes pilots to believe they are flying aircraft straight and level when they are in fact banking,” the AP writes. According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Visual Flight Rules, pilots are required to be able to see where they’re going.
The NTSB’s five board members unanimously agreed that rather than land at another local airport due to bad weather, Zobayan probably pressured himself to complete the flight for Kobe, who was often the pilot’s passenger. Zobayan also didn’t file a backup flight plan before leaving. Additionally, the agency blamed aircraft operator, Island Express Helicopters, Inc. for insufficient review and neglect of safety concerns.
During the flight, when Zobayan thought he had almost broken through the clouds, investigators found that he was actually banking and made a sudden turn before plunging into the hillside in Calabasas, hitting the ground at about 184 mph. The passengers and pilot died on impact.
Vanessa Bryant later sued Zobayan and the companies that owned and managed the helicopter, citing alleged negligence and wrongful deaths of Kobe and Gianna. The other victims’ families sued the aircraft companies but did not sue the pilot.