Pilot Ara Zobayan of the helicopter transporting former NBA star Kobe Bryant may have made the fatal mistake of climbing into heavy clouds, resulting in the crash that took the lives of Zobayan, Bryant and seven others. This decision could have been a deliberate violation of Federal Aviation Administration rules, according to the claims of a former top investigator with the FAA, as quoted Tuesday by Insurance Journal.
That same day, National Transportation Safety Board investigators released video -- much of it taken by drone -- of the wreckage of the helicopter that went down Sunday morning in the Los Angeles, California, suburb of Calabasas.
Zobayan, behind the stick of a Sikorsky S-76B luxury helicopter, was flying under what are called "special visual flight rules," which allow for traveling in poor weather conditions without relying on an aircraft's electronic instruments. But even under those rules, pilots are required to remain beneath clouds to maintain visual contact with the ground.
But shortly before the crash, the pilot pulled the helicopter into a rapid climb, perhaps because he believed he was flying too close to the ground, according to a speculative New York Magazine account of the tragic flight by aviation journalist Jeff Wise.
The Sikorsky helicopter climbed approximately 1,000 feet in just 36 seconds, bringing it close to — and possibly into — the thick cloud layer hanging over the Los Angeles area that day. Wise also noted that whether the chopper actually entered the clouds may never be known for sure.The rapid ascent "would suggest either intentionally not complying with the FAA rules regarding visual flight," or that the pilot flew into the hazardous cloud cover inadvertently, former FAA chief accident investigator Jeffrey Guzzetti told Insurance Journal.
If the copter entered the clouds, Zobayan would have immediately found himself in deep trouble, according to Wise's account.
"Amid a sudden whiteout, disorientation can come surprisingly quickly," he wrote.
Possibly as a result of his disorientation, Zobayan was likely to have experienced a "sense of mental overload" that led him to make a fatefully poor decision — to suddenly turn left, then enter a steep dive, according to the aviation journalist.
Wise speculated that Zobayan's final maneuver may have been motivated by a desire to drop below the clouds to where he could again see the ground, "while pulling a hard 180" to get away from what he thought was the hillside rising in front of him.
But the hills were not only positioned in front of the helicopter, but to the sides as well, Wise wrote. As the aircraft descended about 800 feet in just 18 seconds, it plowed into the hillside and burst into flames, killing everyone on board.
Wise added that the scenario he described "is just one possibility." The NTSB on Tuesday said that it has reached no conclusions about what caused the horrific accident.
The helicopter missed flying clear of the hilltop by only between 20 and 30 feet, according to investigators who briefed the media on Tuesday afternoon, as cited by The Washington Post. On that day, investigators had removed all nine bodies from the crash site, and positively identified four, including Bryant, by fingerprints.
Bryant's 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant, was also on board and perished along with her 41-year-old father in the crash.