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Pilot Error Determined To Cause Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash

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Kobe Bryant Mural
Photo Courtesy of Oscar Sol

Federal investigators have concluded that pilot error was the cause of the Jan. 26, 2020, Calabasas helicopter crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Tuesday.

The NTSB said pilot Ara Zobayan become disoriented while navigating through heavy fog while ferrying the eight passengers from Orange County to Camarillo for a youth basketball game, believing he was ascending above the fog when he was actually descending before slamming into a hillside.

NTSB chief investigator Bill English said Zobayan, in communication with an air traffic controller, “said he was climbing (to) 2,400 feet, however, by that time the helicopter was in a tightening left turn and descending rapidly. This maneuver is consistent with the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation and limited visibility conditions.”

The NTSB findings were presented Tuesday morning after an investigation that lasted about one year. A five-member board was questioning investigators Tuesday and was expected to officially accept the report and offer recommendations when the questioning concludes.

The report found no mechanical difficulties on the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter that would have contributed to the crash.

Zobayan was the chief pilot for the helicopter company, Island Express, and had been flying in the area for 10 years. But investigators said the evidence indicated that he failed to strictly follow the aircraft’s instruments and his training and did not appear to have a backup plan in the event that he couldn’t complete the flight.

Last month, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, announced proposed legislation that would require the installation of Terrain Avoidance Warning Systems (TAWS) on all helicopters carrying six or more passengers.

The NTSB has been recommending such a requirement for 15 years, but the Federal Aviation Administration requires only air ambulances to be outfitted with the system.

However, NTSB investigators said Tuesday that TAWS would not have prevented this crash, since Zobayan was aware of the terrain.

“These devices are designed for a class of accidents we call controlled flight into terrain in which … the pilot is not aware of the terrain or they turned the wrong way or descendent below an altitude,” English said.  “This accident is not consistent with the controlled flight into terrain scenario. The pilot had every indication he was aware of the terrain along 101 as it was rising toward Calabasas. The radar returns that we have on the helicopter show he was doing a very good job of maintaining altitude of the terrain and in fact, his intent was to climb away from the terrain so at no time was he ever in that danger in the early portions of the accident. He was aware of the terrain somehow.”

`… The pilot doesn’t know which way is up so this type of system would not aid in that situation. … While it’s great technology, we don’t think it applies here.”

The weather on the morning of the flight included a widespread area of coastal clouds about 1,000 to 2,000 feet thick “characterized by stratus clouds at the top at the potential for fog formation below. There were no hazardous conditions such as icing or thunderstorms,” English said.

The flight departed at 9:07 a.m. and proceeded northwest across the Los Angeles metropolitan area. At 9:20 a.m., Zobayan requested permission to enter air space over Burbank Airport but was advised to hold for traffic. About 11 minutes later he was provided clearance through the Burbank airspace, maintaining an altitude of about 500 feet above ground level.

As the flight proceeded west out of the San Fernando Valley, controllers advised Zobayan that his altitude level would be too low as the helicopter followed the Hollywood (101) Freeway toward an area of rising terrain. About four minutes later, Zobayan told controllers that he was intending to climb above the cloud layers.

The helicopter had been flying at about 350 feet above ground level, but during this transmission to controllers it began climbing at a rate of about 1,500 feet per minute while generally following the 101 and a slight left turn.

 “During radio communications with ATC the helicopter climbed (about 1,300 feet above ground level) by which point it was highly unlikely for the pilot to be able to maintain visual ground contact,” investigators said.

 “The controller asked the pilot’s intention and he said he was climbing 2,400 feet. However, by that time the helicopter was in a tightening left turn and descending rapidly,” English said. “This maneuver is consistent with the pilot experiencing spatial disorientation and limited visibility conditions.”

The weather forecast at the time of the flight’s departure showed that airports in Orange County, Burbank, Van Nuys and Camarillo all called for ceilings of 1,000 feet, and all but Van Nuys Airport were forecasting visibility of 3 miles until 9:30 a.m. Van Nuys Airport forecast visibility of 2 miles.

But investigators said those conditions were not bad enough to indicate that the flight should have been canceled.

Another NTSB investigator who specializes in pilot training said Zobayan operated in an inconsistent manner with his training.

“During the climb and subsequent descent, the pilot communicated with air traffic control on numerous occasions but did not declare an emergency. The excessive speed entering the cloud the rapid rate of decline and the left turn were inconsistent with his training,” he said.

An NTSB specialist in human performance issues said Zobayan should have relied on the flight instruments if he was losing his bearings.

 “As the helicopter continued climbing into the cloud the loss of visual references would have required him to transition to the flight instruments to maintain awareness of the helicopter’s attitude and track,” he said. “When flying aircraft and there’s a lack of outside visual references the inner ear can give us a false sense of orientation because the inner ear cannot distinguish between accelerations and tilt. If a pilot cannot see outside visual references he must rely on flight instruments.”

Communication with air traffic control might have been a factor as well, he said.

`As the helicopter climbed, the air traffic controller asked the pilot to ident which required the pilot to move his hand to the center of the instrument panel and press a button. The pilot’s tasks associated with communicating with the controller and pushing the ident button introduced operational distractions from his primary task of monitoring the flight instruments. The resulted interruptions … would make him more vulnerable to misleading vestibular cues that could adversely affect his ability to effectively interpret the instruments and maintain control of the helicopter.”

From 2010-19, the NTSB recorded 184 fatal aircraft accidents related to spatial disorientation, 20 of which were fatal helicopter accidents.

Bryant and the other passengers were being flown to the former Laker’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game, with Bryant coaching his daughter’s team.

The crash has sparked an array of lawsuits filed by relatives of the crash victims, including Bryant’s widow, Vanessa.

Vanessa Bryant has also sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department over cell phone pictures taken at the crash scene by responding deputies.

Along with Bryant, 41, and his daughter, also killed in the crash were:

   — John Altobelli, 56, longtime coach of the Orange Coast College baseball team, along with his wife, Keri, 46, and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa, who was a teammate of Gianna on Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy basketball team;

   — Sarah Chester, 45, and her 13-year-old daughter Payton, who also played with Gianna and Alyssa;

   — Christina Mauser, 38, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches on the Mamba Academy team; and

   — Zobayan, 50.

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Three Killed After Burbank Crash, Street Racing Suspected

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Police Lights Crash

Three people were killed and two others were seriously injured after a Burbank crash late Tuesday evening, under investigation as a possible street racing incident.

On Aug. 3, at about 11:50 p.m., Burbank Police Department (BPD) officers responded to the intersection of Glenoaks Boulevard and Andover Drive after receiving multiple reports of a traffic
collision with a vehicle on fire, according to Sgt. Emil Brimway, spokesperson for the department.

When police officers and paramedics arrived, they located three individuals, unconscious and not breathing, who had been ejected from a silver Volkswagen, Brimway said.

The three victims, two males and a female in their early twenties, had sustained serious injuries and were pronounced deceased at the scene.

A fourth occupant of the Volkswagen had sustained serious injuries and was transported to a local trauma center for medical treatment.

Investigators located a second vehicle involved, a gray Kia, which was only occupied by a driver, who sustained serious injuries and was transported to a local hospital, according to Brimway.

Officers identified a third vehicle involved, a black Mercedes Benz, occupied by two individuals. Neither occupant of the Mercedes Benz reported any injuries. The occupants of the Mercedes Benz were interviewed by investigators and released at the scene.

“The preliminary investigation has revealed that the Kia and Mercedes Benz were traveling
northbound on Glenoaks Boulevard at a high rate of speed for several blocks and appeared to
be racing,” Brimway said.

The Volkswagen was attempting to negotiate a left turn from southbound Glenoaks Boulevard to eastbound Andover Drive when the traffic collision occurred.

The identities of the victims have not been released as of Wednesday, pending next of kin notification.

This collision remains under investigation by Burbank Police Department Traffic Detectives.
Anyone who may have witnessed the collision or has any information is asked to contact the
Burbank Police Traffic Bureau at (818) 238-3100.

Upon completion of this investigation, detectives will present the case to the Los Angeles
County District Attorney’s Office for criminal filing consideration.

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Man Killed After Falling Down Manhole In Panorama City Hit-And-Run Crash

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Detectives are investigating a Panorama City crash after a man was killed when a vehicle drove over a manhole cover, causing the person to fall.  

On Saturday, July 10, at about 10:25 a.m., a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck was traveling westbound on Parthenia Street, when the truck drove over a manhole as a pedestrian underneath was attempting to open the cover, according to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

As the vehicle drove over the manhole cover it was pushed down on top of the pedestrian who fell back down the manhole, according to detectives. 

The driver of the white 2008-2012 Silverado continued driving westbound on Parthenia Street has not been identified, investigators said. 

Los Angeles Fire Department paramedics responded to the scene and pronounced the victim dead on arrival, according to the LAPD.

The pedestrian was a male in his 20’s. His name will not be released until the next of kin is notified by the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office.

“The public is reminded that manholes are used for city services to access various maintenance tunnels that are located underground,” LAPD officials said. “Manhole covers should not be disturbed or moved due to their weight and could cause serious injury or death.”

On April 15, 2015, the L.A. City Council amended the Los Angeles Administrative Code and created a Hit and Run Reward Program Trust Fund. 

A reward of up to $50,000 is available to community members who provide information leading to the offender’s identification, apprehension, and conviction or resolution through a civil compromise, according to the LAPD.

The investigation is ongoing, anyone who may have witnessed or have information regarding this collision is asked to contact Valley Traffic Division Officer Takishita at (818)-644-8116 or Detective Buenaventura at (818) 644-8035. 

During non-business hours, or on weekends, calls should be directed to 877-527-3247. Anyone wishing to remain anonymous should call the L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or visit here.

Video Courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Department

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Wrong-Way 14 Freeway Crash Results In Big Rig ‘Fully Involved’ With Fire

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Wrong Way 14 Freeway Crash Big Rig Fire
Photo Courtesy of Cheryl Dees Landreth

Multiple people were injured after a 14 Freeway crash, possibly caused by a wrong-way driver, that resulted in a big rig “fully involved” with fire Friday afternoon. 

The incident was reported at about 2:44 p.m. Friday near the northbound 14 Freeway at Crown Valley Road in Agua Dulce, according to Charisma Murillo, spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

A full brush assignment was sent to the crash after the big rig fire spread to the surrounding area, Murillo said.

One person was trapped as a result of the collision and another was reported to have sustained burn injuries, according to Fire officials. 

A helicopter from L.A. County Fire Air Operations was requested to the scene, according to Murillo.

Two victims, one with critical burns, were airlifted to a local hospital, according to Jon Matheny, public information officer for the department.

Forward progress of the blaze was later stopped at about a quarter acre, according to Fire officials.

Initial reports from the California Highway Patrol (CHP) indicated a wrong-way driver was involved in the collision. 

A SigAlert was issued just before 3 p.m. for the closure of all lanes of the northbound 14 Freeway for an unknown duration, according to CHP logs.

The CHP updated the SigAlert at about 3:30 p.m. with an estimated duration of two hours for the northbound 14 Freeway closure.

Note: This is a breaking news story, more information will be added as it becomes available. 

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