Kobe Bryant pilot 'felt under pressure to fly basketball star to game because he was so famous’

KOBE Bryant's helicopter pilot would have felt under pressure to get him to his destination because he was so famous, crash investigators said.

A report blamed Ara Zobayan for a series of poor decisions before the fireball crash that killed NBA legend Kobe, his daughter Gigi and six others.

National Transportation Safety Board experts said the pilot fell into a deadly trap when he flew into cloud and became so disoriented he did not know which way was up.

A long-awaited report yesterday said Zobayan was not licensed to fly without clear visibility and could have averted disaster by landing or switching to autopilot.

But he was probably worried about getting his VIP client where he wanted to go, experts ruled.

NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt said the crash illustrated that even good pilots can make bad decisions.

“Here is a case where a pilot who is well regarded apparently got into a very bad situation,” Sumwalt said.

“The scenario we believe happened, he is flying along, he realizes that he’s sort of getting boxed in with visibility and then he must have made the decision, ‘You know what, I’m just going to punch up through these clouds and get on top.’”

The board said the pressure on Zobayan was "self-induced", and there was no evidence Kobe or charter firm Island Express Helicopters had urged him to continue through bad weather.

It's not the first time investigators have seen it happen with celebrities.

NTSB vice chairman Bruce Landsberg cited separate aircraft crashes that killed musicians Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Aaliyah.

He said: "In all of those cases you are dealing with someone of great star power status and pilots who desperately want to do a good job for the customer.

“My sense is that… this pilot really wanted to get where he was going.”

Investigators found Zobayan had ignored his training by flying through thick cloud on January 26 last year.

He told air traffic controllers he was climbing to get above clouds and clear of the hills.

But at the same time the Sikorsky S-76B banked steeply and plunged 1,000ft into a hillside in Calabasas, California.

All nine on board died when the chopper hit the ground at 184mph, scattering flaming debris over an area the size of a football field.


Experts said Zobayan probably fell victim to spatial disorientation, also known as “the leans”, which causes pilots to believe they are flying straight and level when they are banking.

Investigator-in-charge Bill English said that the hilly terrain and the disorientation caused by the clouds would have been a "confusing factor."

"The pilot doesn't know which way is up," he said.

Zobayan was trained to fly instruments-only but was no longer proficient, and was "legally prohibited" to fly through cloud, the NTSB said.

The report also criticized Island Express Helicopters, the operators, for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.

The helicopter did not have so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required.

The others who died were: Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Kobe coach the team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton.

Alyssa and Payton were Gianna Bryant's teammates on their way to a tournament.

LA Lakers legend Kobe, 41, hired the chopper to take them from Orange County to a girls' basketball tournament at his Mamba Academy in Ventura County.

Kobe's widow Vanessa said she sometimes "doesn't feel like being alive" as the anniversary of the tragedy approached last month.

Alongside Gianna, the couple shared daughters Natalia, now 17, Bianka, four, and Capri, one.

Vanessa has filed a lawsuit against Island Express helicopters and the estate of pilot Zobayan, claiming he was not properly trained and should have aborted the flight.

Lawyers for the charter firm and Zobayan's brother Berge declined to comment on the NTSB findings last night.

Berge Zobayan has previously said Kobe Bryant knew the risks of flying and that his survivors aren’t entitled to damages.

Island Express Helicopters denied responsibility and said the crash was “an act of God” that it could not control.

It is also countersuing two FAA air traffic controllers, saying the crash was caused by their “series of erroneous acts and/or omissions.”

While air traffic controllers failed to report the loss of radar contact and radio communication with the flight, it did not contribute to the crash, the NTSB said.

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