By pushing the limits of the helicopter during poor weather conditions and despite flying rules and regulations, the pilot crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California, on January 26, 2020, as Blavity previously reported. The initial report released by investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was released in February 2020. Now, the independent federal agency has found that Ara Zobayan, an experienced pilot who piloted the fatal flight, likely could have prevented the crash. The NTSB also declared Zobayan‘s employer, Island Express Helicopters, as a “generally safe charter operation,” according to CNN.
“By most measures, the interviews that we conducted, the pilot was well thought of, well-regarded. He was the chief pilot. Had good credentials,” Robert Sumwalt, NTSB chairman, said as reported by USA Today. “I think this illustrates that even good pilots can end up in bad situations.”
Furthermore, this meeting will determine long-term safety regulations, Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems required for helicopters and increased safety training for helicopter pilots on how to avoid flying into clouds. Once protocols and recommendations are set in place, the regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), helicopter charter companies and pilots are responsible for implementation.
“We use the term crash rather than accident. An accident (is) just something that’s unforeseen, unpredictable, if you will. Unfortunately, this wasn’t,” NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said during a meeting of the NTSB to determine the official cause of the fatal crash, CNN reported.
During the meeting, it was predicted that Zobayan could have felt pressure to perform for a high caliber client such as Bryant, with whom Zobayan built a “very close friendship.” With this in mind, the NTSB further said that continuing to fly into a high-risk weather condition mixed with their reported friendship “can lead to self induced pressure and plan continuation bias,” reported CNN.
In contrast, NTSB investigators further assessed Zobayan’s decision making skills in the scenario of the crash. As opposed to landing the helicopter at the nearby Van Nuys airport and waiting for the weather to subside, Zobayan continued to proceed into the poor weather conditions and risk the lives of passengers and himself. Thomas Chapman, a NTSB board member, ultimately pushed back on the hypothetical self-induced pressure.
“It’s not like … the pilot was flying along, didn’t know where the hills are and blundered into the side of a hill,” Sumwalt said.
Sumwalt continued, according to BBC News, to question the expectations of a pilot in such situations.
“What were the expectations of the pilot under the company policy? Did he put pressure on himself, and what actions could he have taken to avoid flying into the clouds?” he said.
Moreover, investigators claim Zobayan may have come over a case of “the leans,” according to Associated Press, “which occurs in the inner ear and causes pilots to believe they are flying aircraft straight and level when they are in fact banking.” Aircraft operator Island Express Helicopters Inc. was also faulted for the crash and inadequate oversight of the safety measures. It was reported that prior to the crash, Zobayan told flight controllers that he climbed into the helicopter and nearly broke through the clouds, but the helicopter was indeed banking. Sumwalt noted that while Zobayan reported that he was descending out of a heavy cloud, investigators were led to believe that the “maneuvers is consistent with the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation in limited visibility conditions,” NBC News reported.
Bill English, the NTSB investigator-in-charge, said in the meeting that the terrain ahead combined with the possible disorientation could have made the warning system a “confusing factor” all at once, and the Terrain Awareness and Warning System would likely not have been helpful, though it is a device that signals when aircrafts are in danger of crashing.
“The pilot doesn’t know which way is up,” English said, according to The Associated Press.
The group of passengers were traveling to Thousand Oaks, California, for a youth basketball game when the crash occurred. The names of the passengers involved included: Kobe and Gianna Bryant; John and Keri Altobelli and their daughter, Alyssa; Sarah Chester and her daughter, Payton; Christina Mauser, an assistant coach; and Zobayan.