Today the National Transport Safety Board released its preliminary report into the January 26 helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others. For the first time, it revealed that moments before impact the pilot deliberately broke FAA regulations meant to prevent just such kinds of accidents.
As previously reported, in the minutes prior to the crash, pilot Ara Zobayan was flying just a few hundred feet over the floor of the San Fernando Valley, which lies at an elevation of 800 feet. An opaque layer of overcast clouds covered the area at an altitude of 1,900 feet. As Zobayan reached the southwestern edge of the valley and crossed into Calabasas, the ground below him climbed higher until he was zooming 150 mph over the road at scarcely more than 100 feet, with hillsides rising up on either side into the low clouds.
Technically, Zobayan was allowed by FAA regulations to fly this way. According to Visual Flight Rules, as long he could see at least half a mile and stayed out of the clouds, he’d remain legal. But it afforded him little margin for error. Evidently, he decided it would be safer or more comfortable to climb to a higher altitude where he would have better visibility and room for maneuver. At 9:45 a.m., according to the new NTSB report, Zobayan called air traffic control and told them that he was going to climb up above the cloud layers to an altitude of 4,000 feet, which would put him comfortably above the cloud tops at 2,400 feet.
Up there, he’d be well above the rugged terrain and be able to see for miles. The problem was that to get there, he’d have to climb through 500 vertical feet of white-out clouds. “Its absolutely deliberately breaking the VFR rules,” says Paul Cline, assistant professor of aviation at the City University of New York.
The reason flying up into a cloud layer is illegal is because there’s a high danger of exactly what happened: Without visual reference to the ground, a pilot becomes disoriented, loses track of which way is up, and augurs in to the ground.
Ironically, the new report also reveals that just nine months before the crash Zobayan had received proficiency training in “inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions and unusual attitude recovery” — in other words, the exact things that killed him.