On the fateful morning in January when Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and six other passengers left Orange County by helicopter headed for a girls’ basketball tournament, the weather was foggy. Area police had grounded their own helicopters. There was a weather advisory requiring instrument flight, but the pilot of Bryant’s helicopter used special visual flight rules.
That may have been a catastrophic mistake. Relying on visual cues and landmarks when it is difficult to differentiate the ground from the sky can lead to spatial disorientation. Now, an interim report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says that the pilot may have “misperceived” his descent and banking angles.
“During the final descent the pilot, responding to (air traffic control), stated that they were ‘climbing to four thousand,’” reads the report. The fact that the pilot indicated he was climbing when he was in reality sinking rapidly could be a telltale indicator that spatial disorientation may have occurred.
This interim NTSB report does not come to a final conclusion about what caused the crash but instead compiles investigators’ reports. A final report is still forthcoming.
Kobe’s widow Vanessa Bryant and the families of the other passengers have sued the pilot’s estate and Island Express Helicopters, Inc., the charter company, for wrongful death. They allege that the pilot should have known better than to fly in the poor weather conditions.
The pilot’s brother, on behalf of the estate, denies any responsibility for the tragedy. He alleges that Bryant understood the risks of helicopter flying. Island Express has called the wreck “an act of God.”
Should the flight have been canceled for weather?
Again, other area helicopters had been grounded due to the poor weather, but it is generally the pilot’s call whether to fly in inclement weather.
The NTSB investigators found no evidence of drugs or alcohol in the pilot’s system. Interviews with others at the company were mixed, with at least one person commenting that Island Express didn’t really have a safety management program in place to challenge a pilot’s decisions.
Island Express points out that it has previously canceled flights due to poor weather conditions, including flights involving celebrity clients. It reported 150 cancellations for weather in 2019 and 13 in 2020 before the crash — all of which occurred within two days before Bryant’s fatal flight.
The day before the crash, the pilot texted regarding the weather, that it would be “not the best day tomorrow but it is not as bad as today.”
About 45 minutes before takeoff that morning, the pilot allegedly texted people overseeing the flight that the weather was “OK.”