LOS ANGELES — 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 descending, federal investigators said in documents released Wednesday.
Ara Zobayan radioed to air traffic controllers that he was climbing to 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) to get above clouds on Jan. 26 when, in fact, the helicopter was plunging toward a hillside where it crashed northwest of Los Angeles.
The report by the National Transportation Safety Board said Zobayan may have “misperceived” the pitch of the aircraft, which can happen when a pilot becomes disoriented in low visibility.
Experts said shortly after the crash that the path of the flight indicated Zobayan was disoriented.
The 1,700 pages of reports do not offer a conclusion of what caused the crash but compile factual reports. A final report on the cause is due later.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six of their friends were killed, along with Zobayan.
About 45 minutes before takeoff, Zobayan had texted a group of people overseeing the flight that the weather was looking “OK.”
He took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. with the eight passengers he had flown the day before to the same destination: a girls basketball tournament at the retired Lakers star’s Mamba Sports Academy north of Los Angeles.
When the helicopter hadn’t landed within an hour, an executive of the company that operated the craft began a frantic search for the craft on tracking software and had another company chopper dispatched to look for it.
“The weird thing, though, is that the tracker had stopped at 9:45 a.m. 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.”
The NTSB previously said there was no sign of mechanical failure in the Sikorsky S-76.