The helicopter pilot flying Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and several others when it crashed, killing everyone aboard, likely became disoriented after losing his visual references in the thick fog that enshrouded parts of Southern California at the time, newly released federal documents indicate.

Pilot Ara Zobayan told air traffic controllers that he was taking the helicopter up to get out of the thick clouds but flight data showed the aircraft was actually descending at that time, gaining speed as it approached a hillside in Calabasas, California.

Not being able to see the sky or land creates a loss perspective called “spatial disorientation” and it’s a trick external conditions sometimes play on even the best pilots, often with fatal consequences.

“Without outside references or attention to the helicopter’s attitude display, the actual pitch and bank angles have the potential to be misperceived,” the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in some of the more than 1,700 pages of investigative documents from the ongoing probe it released June 17.

The documents also indicated that the pilot knew about the fog and the flight risks it posed well ahead of the deadly Jan. 26 crash. On the night of Jan. 25, a broker arranging the flight expressed concern to Mr. Zobayan that “weather could be an issue.”

Less than two hours before the crash, Mr. Zobayan assured the broker and others that the weather conditions “should be OK.” The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave Mr. Zobayan’s company Island Express Helicopters special clearance to fly, even when the Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. helicopter fleet were grounded because of the weather.

The weather was fair when the helicopter left from John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, but quickly deteriorated as the helicopter approached Los Angeles. Flight data indicates the helicopter encountered weather-related problems in the air above the Los Angeles Zoo, where it circled for about 15 minutes, before moving north to Thousand Oaks, its destination.

Records show the helicopter was flying about 184 mph and was descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute when it crashed.

In addition to Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and Mr. Zobayan, the crash killed Christina Mauser; Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton Chester; John and Keri Altobelli, and their daughter Alyssa Altobelli.

To date, investigators have found no evidence pointing to mechanical problems with the 1991 Sikorsly S-76B. The NTSB’s investigation remains ongoing and officials have made no determination of a cause. A final report will likely be issued early next year.

Additional source: National Transportation Safety Board

Aviation litigation

Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation and currently represents families of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 victims involving the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. In addition to his Ethiopian Airlines crash clients, Mike has represented people seriously injured in a variety of aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes.

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