The Scientific Reason Why Kobe Bryant's Helicopter Crashed

Ever heard of a common flight issue called spatial disorientation?
Fabienne Lang

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded on Tuesday that the helicopter transporting Kobe Bryant and seven other passengers last year crashed because of the pilot's poor decisions, which led him to be spatially disorientated — ultimately leading to loss of control. 

The NTSB's full report and statement were published on Tuesday after extensive research into last year's crash in California. 

As per the NTSB's report, minutes before the crash, the helicopter was climbing upwards to get above the clouds, before descending rapidly on a left turn and crashing into the terrain. 

The pilot experienced spatial disorientation while turning and descending rapidly, which is part of the reason why the helicopter crashed. Spatial disorientation happens when a person's senses are tricked, and in this tragic case, the pilot's senses succumbed to it. 

As humans, we rely on many of our senses to safely navigate through our world, and operate on a normal basis. But in certain situations our senses can mislead us, causing accidents in the worst of cases.

What happens when you are spatially disorientated

When someone is spatially disorientated, the sensors in their inner ear are off-kilter. Known as the neurovestibular system, these inner ear sensors inform us when we're moving or not. Unfortunately, they're not so great at warning us when there are very gradual changes of movement — leading to spatial disorientation. 

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This is especially tricky for pilots operating in conditions that don't allow for other senses to be used, such as vision. In these cases, pilots have to use their onboard instruments.

So in moments such as on a moonless night or when in clouds, a pilot could be banking right without even noticing it unless his instruments warn him. Sometimes, though, pilots trust their instincts rather than their instruments — because biology naturally taught us to — and matters can get quickly out of hand.

"As the helicopter continued its steep descent, the pilot was either not referencing the helicopter’s instruments, or [was] having difficulty interpreting or believing them, due to the compelling vestibular illusions, and he did not successfully recover the helicopter," Dr. Dujuan Sevillian explained 24 minutes into the NTSB's video statement.

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