The pilot of the helicopter that crashed in thick fog, killing Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers, reported he was climbing when he actually was heading for the ground, federal investigators said in documents released Wednesday.
Ara Zobayan radioed to air traffic controllers that he was climbing to 4000 feet (1220 meters) to get above clouds on January 26 when, in fact, the chopper was plunging toward a hillside where it crashed northwest of Los Angeles, killing all nine people aboard.
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The report by the National Transportation Safety Board said Zobayan may have “misperceived” the angles at which he was descending and banking, which can happen when a pilot becomes disoriented in low visibility.
“Calculated apparent angles at this time show that the pilot could have misperceived both pitch and roll angles,” one report stated.
“During the final descent the pilot, responding to (air traffic control), stated that they were ‘climbing to four thousand.’”
Los Angeles Lakers icon Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people on board died in the accident.
Transcript of pilot’s final communications released
Zobayan's doomed attempts to pilot the aircraft out of trouble were revealed in 1700 pages of investigative documents released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB, which is continuing to investigate the crash, stressed the “public docket” was not a final report “nor does it contain analysis, findings, recommendations, or probable cause determinations.”
“As such, no conclusions about how or why the crash occurred should be drawn from the information within the docket,” the NTSB said.
“Analysis, findings, recommendations, and probable cause determinations related to the crash will be issued by the NTSB in a final report at a later date.”
A partial transcript of communications between Zobayan and air traffic control in the final moments before the crash was among the documents released.
“Uh, we climbing to four thousand,” Zobayan says in the transcript.
“And then what ya gonna do when ya get to altitude?” a controller replies in the transcript.
No further communication from the aircraft was heard after that point.
Previous disclosures from investigators have revealed the helicopter plunged several hundred feet before the crash, when Zobayan had been attempting to climb out of the heavy fog.
When the helicopter hadn’t landed within an hour, an executive of the company that operated the aircraft began a frantic search for it on tracking software and had another company chopper dispatched to look for it.
“The weird thing, though, is that the tracker had stopped at 9:45am, which is not normal and we were trying to reach Ara over the radio,” noted Whitney Bagge, vice president of Island Express Helicopters.
“I kept refreshing the tracker praying that it was just broken.”
Ugly blame game in back-and-forth lawsuits
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 it was “not the best day tomorrow but it is not as bad as today.”
The flight departure Saturday morning had been delayed by weather by 15 minutes, according to an NTSB interview with Cate Brady, the personal assistant to Bryant.
Brady said the original flight time for Sunday was 9:45 am, but Bryant had it rescheduled to 9am because he wanted to see another team play before his daughter's game.
Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, has sued the pilot, Island Express and the owner of the craft for negligence. In the lawsuit, filed in February as a star-studded public memorial was held before 20,000 people at Staples Centre, where Bryant played most of his career, Vanessa Bryant said the pilot shouldn’t have flown in those conditions and should have aborted the flight.
Zobayan’s brother responded in a court filing that Kobe Bryant knew the risks of helicopter flying and his survivors aren’t entitled to damages from the pilot’s estate.
Island Express Helicopters Inc. has denied responsibility, calling the crash “an act of God” that was beyond its control.
Autopsies released last month showed Zobayan did not have drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of the crash. The coroner’s reports said all nine aboard died from the impact, not the fire that followed.
The others killed 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.