Feds: Helicopter pilot in Kobe Bryant crash was disoriented in clouds

Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site
Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
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LOS ANGELES — U.S. safety investigators said Tuesday that the pilot of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter flew through clouds last year in an apparent violation of federal standards and likely became disoriented just before the helicopter crashed, killing Bryant and eight others.

Pilot Ara Zobayan was flying under visual flight rules, which meant that he needed to be able to see where he was going, Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said during a hearing to specify the likely cause or causes of the crash.

Zobayan piloted the aircraft to climb sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Southern California hills below, killing all aboard.

The helicopter did not have the so-called “black box” recording devices, which were not required.

The revelation during the hearing followed plenty of finger-pointing.

Bryant’s widow had blamed the pilot. She and relatives of the other victims also faulted the companies that owned and operated the helicopter.

The brother of the pilot didn’t blame Bryant but said he knew about the risks of flying. The helicopter companies have said that foggy weather before the helicopter hit the ground was an act of God and blamed air traffic controllers.

The federal hearing focused on the long-awaited probable cause or causes of the tragedy that unleashed worldwide grief for the retired basketball star, launched several lawsuits and prompted state and federal legislation.

“I think the whole world is watching because it’s Kobe,” said Ed Coleman, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor and aircraft safety science expert.

Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County on Jan. 26, 2020, when the helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.

The Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into hills below, killing all nine aboard instantly before flames engulfed the wreckage.

There was no sign of mechanical failure and the crash was believed to be an accident, the National Transportation Safety Board has said previously.

The board during its hearing Tuesday is likely to make nonbinding recommendations to prevent future crashes when it meets remotely and announces its findings about the crash.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency that investigates transportation-related crashes but has no enforcement powers.

It submits suggestions to agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration or the Coast Guard, which have repeatedly rejected some board safety recommendations after other disasters.

Over the past year, experts have speculated that the crash could lead to requiring Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems, devices that signal when aircraft are in danger of crashing, on helicopters.

The helicopter that Bryant was flying in did not have the system, which the NTSB has recommended as mandatory for helicopters. The FAA requires it only for air ambulances.

However, NTSB investigator-in-charge Bill English said Tuesday that the system, known as TAWS, would likely not have been helpful in the scenario in which Bryant’s helicopter crashed.

The hilly terrain, combined with the pilot’s spatial disorientation in the clouds, would have been “a confusing factor,” English said.

“The pilot doesn’t know which way is up,” English said.

Federal investigators said Zobayan, an experienced pilot who often flew Bryant, may have “misperceived” the angles at which he was descending and banking, which can occur when pilots become disoriented in low visibility, according to NTSB documents.

Investigators on Tuesday also faulted Zobayan for banking to the left instead of ascending straight up while trying to climb out of the bad weather.

The others killed in the crash 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.

The crash has generated lawsuits and countersuits.

On the day that a massive memorial service was held at the Staples Center, where Bryant played most of his career, Vanessa Bryant sued Zobayan and the companies that owned and operated the helicopter for alleged negligence and the wrongful deaths of her husband and daughter. Families of other victims sued the helicopter companies but not the pilot.

Vanessa Bryant said Island Express Helicopters Inc., which operated the aircraft, and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp., did not properly train or supervise Zobayan. She said the pilot was careless and negligent to fly in fog and should have aborted the flight.

Zobayan’s brother, Berge Zobayan, has said Kobe Bryant knew the risks of flying in a helicopter and that his survivors aren’t entitled to damages from the pilot’s estate. Island Express Helicopters Inc. denied responsibility and said the crash was “an act of God” that it could not control.

The company also countersued two FAA air traffic controllers, saying the crash was caused by their “series of erroneous acts and/or omissions.”

The countersuit claims one controller improperly denied Zobayan’s request for “flight following,” or radar assistance, as he proceeded in the fog. Officials have said the controller terminated service because radar could not be maintained at the altitude the aircraft was flying.

According to the lawsuit, the controller said he was going to lose radar and communications shortly, but radar contact was not lost.

When a second controller took over, the lawsuit said, the first controller failed to brief him about the helicopter, and because the radar services were not terminated correctly, the pilot believed he was being tracked.

Vanessa Bryant also sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, accusing deputies of sharing unauthorized photos of the crash site. California now has a state law prohibiting such conduct.

Watch Rudy Gobert get ejected for tripping Thunder’s Williams

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Already without Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves were without their second twin tower for most of Saturday night after Rudy Gobert got ejected for kicking and tripping the Thunder’s Kenrich Williams.

Early in the second quarter, Williams was driving to the rim and Gobert was there to contest it, and with the contact Williams went to the ground, then Gobert tripped over him and fell. As Williams started to get back up and try to get down the court, Gobert kicked Williams’ legs out from under him, tripping Williams. A brief scuffle followed.

The referees reviewed the play (it didn’t take long) and ultimately Gobert was given a flagrant 2 and ejected, while Williams got a technical. The refs got that one right.

The game was chippy the whole way through, but going against a smaller Timberwolves front line the Thunder picked up a 135-128 win behind 33 from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Watch Simons puts up career-best 45, carry Portland past Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) —  Anfernee Simons scored a career-high 45 points and blocked a potential 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to a 116-111 win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday night.

“I wanted to be aggressive and set the tone for my teammates,” Simons said. “Early on, let them know that we are in this game and I’m going to do whatever it takes for us to win it.”

The Jazz led 111-110 after Kelly Olynyk‘s twisting jumper and then had a chance to tie it at 114, but Simons swiped the ball from Jordan Clarkson as he rose for a 3-point attempt from the right angle.

“I just tried to catch him before he went up. … Kind of a risky play, but I’m glad I got it,” Simons said with a chuckle.

The Trail Blazers had lost seven of their last eight games before winning this thriller as Damian Lillard missed his seventh game with a lower right leg injury.

Portland’s Jerami Grant scored 13 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter as the Jazz swarmed Simons.

Jusuf Nurkic had 15 points and 14 rebounds and Trendon Watford finished with a career-high 14 rebounds, too.

The Jazz held Simons to just one field goal attempt in the fourth quarter, but he hit two free throws with 29.2 seconds to play, giving Portland a 112-111 lead. Grant added four free throws in the final 6.4 seconds for the final margin.

“Ant got it going early and we just kind of rode him, rode him, rode him. And then obviously Jerami was going,” Portland coach Chauncey Billups said.

Clarkson had 24 points, and Lauri Markkanen added 21 for the Jazz, but committed two turnovers in the final 35.7 seconds. Collin Sexton scored 19 points and Jarred Vanderbilt had a season-high 16 for Utah.

Portland led 107-101 on Grant’s 3-pointer with 4:12 to play, but Sexton scored five quick points in 10-3 run that was highlighted by Markkanen’s block of Simon’s drive in the final minute.

Simons scored 23 points in the first quarter – a season high for Simons, as well as any Blazers player in any quarter. Simons had 22 in the third quarter against Denver on Oct. 24.

By halftime, Simons had 33 points and the Blazers led 69-60.

“You have to come out in the very beginning and try to set the tone. Doesn’t matter that it’s the second night of a back-to-back. They came out with an aggressiveness and a physicality that we didn’t (have),” Utah coach Will Hardy said.

Simons became the third Trail Blazer in the last decade to score 45 points, joining Lillard and CJ McCollum. He wanted more.

“In the back of my mind, I wanted 50. But there’s going to be plenty of opportunities for that. It’s all right, because we got the win,” Simons said.

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

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NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.