Pilot In Kobe Bryant Crash Thought He Was Climbing When Descending, Report Suggests

Author image

Rachel Sandler   Forbes U.S. Staff

foggy weather

In the final seconds before the crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others, the pilot of the helicopter radioed air traffic control and said he was climbing when the Sikorsky S-76 was actually descending, according to documents released Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.


- Among the NTSB documents made public is a report that says Ara Zobayan may have become disoriented in the foggy weather, causing him to think the helicopter was climbing when it was descending.

- When an air traffic controller asked Zobayan his intentions, the pilot replied, “climbing to four thousand [feet],” but the report says the helicopter was descending and banking to the left.  

- In a phenomenon known as “somatogravic illusion,” in conditions where the horizon isn’t visible, a pilot can mistake acceleration for a rapid climb and deceleration for tilting forward.

- From 2000 to 2016, there were nine accidents involving large transport aircraft caused by somatogravic illusions, taking 481 lives, according to a paper from a researcher at Cranfield University in the U.K.

- Before takeoff, Zobayan texted the parties involved in the flight that the weather was “OK,” according to the NTSB, and the owner of the helicopter company, Island Express, agreed that the flight was doable in the weather.

- The NTSB released its docket, which is over 1,700 pages, listing the agency’s findings and includes transcripts of interviews from the investigation—but the NTSB has not written a final report yet about what caused the crash.


Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, is suing Island Express, alleging it is liable for the reckless and negligent actions of Zobayan. The lawsuit claims Zobayan failed to properly monitor the weather before takeoff, decided to fly through foggy conditions in low visibility rather than end the flight and did not avoid obstacles in the flight path. Island Express was not certified by the FAA to fly in weather conditions that would require reliance on instruments, or instrument flight rules.


Basketball star Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people were killed Jan. 26 on their way to a youth basketball game after the helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California. A preliminary investigation found no mechanical or engine trouble.

Author image

Rachel Sandler   Forbes U.S. Staff

I’m a San Francisco-based reporter covering breaking news at Forbes. I’ve previously reported for USA Today, Business Insider, The San Francisco Business Times and San Jose Inside. I studied journalism at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and was an editor at The Daily Orange, the university’s independent student newspaper.