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Pilot of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter was qualified to fly in fog

Ara Zobayanr, 50, was qualified to fly in fog, as his friends said he was ‘not one to make mistakes’ and was always ‘attentive’ to Kobe Bryant and his family

The pilot of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter was qualified to fly in fog, as friends of the beloved instructor paid tribute to him, saying he was ‘not one to make mistakes’ and was always ‘attentive’ to the NBA legend and his family.

Ara Zobayan was flying the helicopter carrying Bryant, the star’s daughter Gianna, 13, and six others when the Sikorsky S-76 crashed in Calabasas, California and caught fire, killing everyone on board on Sunday morning.

Zobayan was told he was ‘too low’ as he flew through thick fog and was unable to get clearance to land at Burbank Airport because the weather conditions were too poor, according to reports. Fifteen minutes later, the helicopter crashed. 

The 50-year-old was a licensed commercial helicopter pilot of 12 years, certified flight instructor of two years and a ground instructor of 11 years, according to federal aviation records. 

He was also instrument rated, which means he was rated to fly in fog.

Tributes to Zobayan, of Huntington Beach, California, poured in on Sunday, as friends and colleagues said he was ‘nice, talkative and especially attentive when it came to Kobe and his family.’

Although it’s not clear when Zobayan started flying Bryant, the Lakers star said in a resurfaced interview that he began taking helicopters because traffic in Los Angeles was so bad it was causing him to miss family activities. 

Bryant said in the 2018 interview with Alex Rodriguez and Big Cat: ‘I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft but still not compromise family time.’

Although it's not clear when Zobayan started flying Bryant, the Lakers star said in a resurfaced interview that he began taking helicopters because traffic in Los Angeles was so bad it was causing him to miss family activities. Pictured: Bryant with daughter Gianna in November 2019

Although it’s not clear when Zobayan started flying Bryant, the Lakers star said in a resurfaced interview that he began taking helicopters because traffic in Los Angeles was so bad it was causing him to miss family activities. Pictured: Bryant with daughter Gianna in November 2019

Zobayan was flying the helicopter carrying Bryant, 41, Gianna, 13, and six others when the Sikorsky S-76 came down in Calabasas, California and caught fire, killing everyone on board on Sunday morning. Zobayan was told he was 'too low' as he flew through thick fog and was unable to get clearance to land at Burbank Airport because the weather conditions were too poor. Fifteen minutes later, the aircraft crashed

Zobayan was flying the helicopter carrying Bryant, 41, Gianna, 13, and six others when the Sikorsky S-76 came down in Calabasas, California and caught fire, killing everyone on board on Sunday morning. Zobayan was told he was ‘too low’ as he flew through thick fog and was unable to get clearance to land at Burbank Airport because the weather conditions were too poor. Fifteen minutes later, the aircraft crashed

A map showing where the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant took off and crashed in the Los Angeles area on Sunday morning

Zobayan’s friend Jared Yochim wrote: ‘Ara was an incredible pilot, instructor pilot, charter pilot and truly a great man. He was not your typical egotistical helicopter pilot like most of us honestly are. 

‘Ara was a man that always remained cool, calm and collected. As more people that knew Ara open up about him, you’ll only hear words like professional, calculated and loving. He was always good for a laugh. 

‘The loss is not mine, but a community really. Ara impacted so many people and only in a positive way. ‘

He added: ‘He was as good as they came and not one to make mistakes.’ 

Twitter user Bella wrote: ‘Working for the aviation business has allowed me to meet some pretty amazing people and pilots. Ara was definitely one of them. Always so nice, talkative and especially attentive when it came to Kobe and his family. I’m heart broken.’

She added: ‘Rest In Peace Ara. One of the sweetest pilots I’ve ever have had the pleasure to meet and converse with while working in the aviation business. Rest easy Kobe… The sweetest, the funniest… he was purely amazing.’ 

Zobayan was friends with actor turned pilot Lorenzo Lamas, appearing with him on an episode of Celebrity Wife Swap along with Andy Dick in 2013.  

What exactly caused Zobayan to crash remains unconfirmed but ‘all signs’ point to him not being able to see where he was going and not using altitude monitoring instruments, relying solely on his eyesight, an aviation source told Page Six.  

Bryant was heading to the Mamba Academy he founded in Thousand Oaks to watch his basketball prodigy daughter Gianna ‘Gigi’ Bryant. 

Her teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester were also on board as were Alyssa’s parents John and Keri Altobelli, Payton’s mother Sarah Chester and their coach Christina Mauser. 

In a resurfaced interview, Bryant explained he began taking helicopters because traffic in Los Angeles was causing him to miss important events with his children. 

The 50-year-old was a licensed commercial helicopter pilot of 12 years, certified flight instructor of two years and a ground instructor of 11 years. He was also instrument rated, which means he was rated to fly in fog. Zobayan was friends with actor turned pilot Lorenzo Lamas (pictured together in 2013), appearing with him on an episode of Celebrity Wife Swap along with Andy Dick

The 50-year-old was a licensed commercial helicopter pilot of 12 years, certified flight instructor of two years and a ground instructor of 11 years. He was also instrument rated, which means he was rated to fly in fog. Zobayan was friends with actor turned pilot Lorenzo Lamas (pictured together in 2013), appearing with him on an episode of Celebrity Wife Swap along with Andy Dick

A friend of Zobayan's wrote: 'He was as good as they came and not one to make mistakes.' Pictured: Zobayan (second from right) at Lorenzo Lamas' (second from left) 60th birthday party

A friend of Zobayan’s wrote: ‘He was as good as they came and not one to make mistakes.’ Pictured: Zobayan (second from right) at Lorenzo Lamas’ (second from left) 60th birthday party 

Friend Jared Yochim wrote: 'Ara was an incredible pilot, instructor pilot, charter pilot and truly a great man. He was not your typical egotistical helicopter pilot like most of us honestly are. Ara was a man that always remained cool, calm and collected'

Friend Jared Yochim wrote: ‘Ara was an incredible pilot, instructor pilot, charter pilot and truly a great man. He was not your typical egotistical helicopter pilot like most of us honestly are. Ara was a man that always remained cool, calm and collected’

Bryant said: ‘Traffic started to get really really bad, I was sitting in traffic and would wind up missing a school play because I was sitting in traffic. This thing just kept mounting. 

‘I had to figure out a way where I could  still train and focus on the craft but still not compromise family time. So that’s when I looked into helicopters, to be able to get down and back in 15 minutes, and that’s when it started. 

‘So my routine was always the same. Weights early in the morning, kids to school, fly down, practice like crazy, do my extra work, media, everything I needed to do, fly back, get back in carpool line and pick the kids up.

‘My wife was like, ”Listen, I can pick them up.” And I’m like no no no, I want to do that. Because you have road trips trips and times where you don’t see your kids, so every chance I get to see them and spend time with them, even if it’s 20 minutes in a car, I want that.’ 

Bryant is survived by his wife Vanessa and daughters Natalia, 17; Bianka, three; and Capri, seven months. 

Flight tracking data indicated that Bryant’s helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9.06am PST, shortly after completing another eight-minute journey to collect passengers. 

Investigators say the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter had a black box that they will seek to recover. 

The aircraft circled for 15 minutes just east of Interstate 5, near Glendale, while air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank and Van Nuys airports nearby. 

In a resurfaced interview, Kobe explained he began flying in helicopters because traffic in Los Angeles was causing him to miss important events with his children. He said: 'Every chance I get to see them and spend time with them, even if it's 20 minutes in a car, I want that'

In a resurfaced interview, Kobe explained he began flying in helicopters because traffic in Los Angeles was causing him to miss important events with his children. He said: ‘Every chance I get to see them and spend time with them, even if it’s 20 minutes in a car, I want that’

Bryant flew in the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter he'd used to travel for years. He is seen preparing to board the private chopper in Los Angeles in April 2013

Bryant flew in the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter he’d used to travel for years. He is seen preparing to board the private chopper in Los Angeles in April 2013

Bryant is survived by his wife Vanessa and daughters Natalia, 17; Bianka, three; and Capri, seven months. The family is seen at Vanessa's baby shower for Capri in May

Bryant is survived by his wife Vanessa and daughters Natalia, 17; Bianka, three; and Capri, seven months. The family is seen at Vanessa’s baby shower for Capri in May 

After holding up the helicopter for other aircraft, controllers cleared the Sikorsky S-76 to proceed north along Interstate 5 through Burbank before turning west to follow U.S Route 101, the Ventura Highway. 

Shortly after 9.40am the helicopter turned again, toward the southeast, and climbed to an altitude of more than 2,000 feet before slamming into a hillside, scattering debris over an area the size of a football field.

When it struck the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 184 mph (160 knots) and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, flight data showed. 

Dozens of firefighters and paramedics battled across steep terrain to reach the flaming wreckage at the crash site but found no survivors, officials said. 

A group of mountain bikers had spotted the smoke from a distance, but the crash site is said to be difficult to access and the recovery operation could take several days.  

Those living nearby the crash scene said they heard what sounded like a low-flying airplane or helicopter. Colin Storm said: ‘It was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything. But then we heard some sputtering, and then a boom.’

Calabasas resident Matt Graham told People: ‘I was sitting on my couch when I heard it go over our roof. I thought to myself, ”Wow they’re flying really low today.”

‘It must’ve been about 100 feet above our roof by the way the house was shaking. I couldn’t imagine why a helicopter was flying so low.’ 

Scott Daehlin, who was one the first onlookers to contact officials about the crash, told People: ‘It seemed to be running fine.’ He said he believes ‘visibility’ was at fault.  

Former pilot Kurt Deetz, who has flown Kobe Bryant in the very helicopter which crashed on Sunday, told the LA Times that the weather was more likely to blame than a mechanical failure.

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna are seen together just a day before they died, with Kobe watching and offering advice as his teenage daughter and budding basketball star plays at Mamba Sports Academy

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna are seen together just a day before they died, with Kobe watching and offering advice as his teenage daughter and budding basketball star plays at Mamba Sports Academy

Sarah Chester (right) and her daughter Payton - a young basketball player - were also killed in Sunday's helicopter disaster

John Altobelli and his wife Keri also died

Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton (left) and John Altobelli and his wife Keri (right) were also victims of the crash 

The Altobellis daughter Alyssa who played on the same basketball team as Gianna Bryant at the Mamba Academy also died

Girls basketball coach Christina Mauser was also killed

The Altobellis daughter Alyssa who played on the same basketball team as Gianna Bryant at the Mamba Academy (left). Girls basketball coach Christina Mauser (right) also died

‘The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft – it just doesn’t happen,’ he said. 

Describing the helicopter as being like a ‘limousine’, Deetz said the aircraft was in ‘fantastic’ condition and subject to a ‘very good maintenance program’.       

In his communications with the Burbank Airport control tower, the pilot was warned that ‘you’re still too low level for flight following’ moments before the crash. 

This was not a warning of impending disaster, but instead reveals that the helicopter could not be properly tracked on radar, meaning that the control tower was unable to provide effective guidance to the pilot. 

Helicopter pilot Phillipe Lesourd told The Sun after listening to the audio that other aircraft appeared to be having problems which was ‘not a good sign’. 

‘When you ask for a special VFR [visual flight rules], which they did, only one aircraft is allowed in the airspace,’ he said. 

‘You can hear the controller saying that it had an ‘ad go around,’that means an aircraft already cancelled its landing because of low visibility.’ 

The aircraft was built in 1991 and owned by Island Express Holding Corp., which is based in Fillmore, California. According to the website Helis.com, it was previously owned by the state of Illinois. 

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said firefighters had to hike to the site with medical equipment and hose lines to extinguish the blaze. 

Fans and mourners descended on the area but police warned people to stay away. 

‘As you can imagine, it’s a logistical nightmare in a sense because the crash site itself is not easily accessible,’ Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told reporters.    

The ‘limo-esque’ Sikorsky S-76B helicopter which crashed on Sunday 

Kobe Bryant’s helicopter was a Sikorsky S-76B model built in 1991 which experts have compared to a ‘limousine’. 

According to flight records, the aircraft had completed an eight-minute journey to pick up passengers less than half an hour before embarking on its final trip.  

Investigators say the helicopter has a black box and will be examining its maintenance records and those of the owner and operator.  

The aircraft in question, with the tail number N72EX, was owned by Island Express Holding Corp., which is based in Fillmore, California. 

According to the website Helis.com, it was previously owned and operated by the state of Illinois.  

Former pilot Kurt Deetz, who said he had flown Bryant in the very helicopter which crashed yesterday, said it was in ‘fantastic’ condition’. 

Speaking to the LA Times, he said the owners had a ‘very good maintenance program’. 

‘The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft – it just doesn’t happen,’ he said, suggesting that poor weather conditions may have caused the crash.  

The very Sikorsky S-76B helicopter which crashed on Sunday, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, is pictured at Van Nuys Airport in California in February 2018

The very Sikorsky S-76B helicopter which crashed on Sunday, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, is pictured at Van Nuys Airport in California in February 2018 

Comparing the helicopter to a Cadillac, Deetz said the S-76B was a ‘limo-esque’ model which was regarded by celebrity passengers as superior to its sister model, the S-76A. 

Bryant was a frequent passenger in the helicopter, using it to fly to Lakers home games.  

Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps, said pilots can become disoriented in low visibility, losing track of which direction is up. 

Green said a pilot flying an S-76 would be instrument-rated, meaning that person could fly the helicopter without relying on visual cues from outside.

Sikorsky began manufacturing the helicopters in 1977 and boasts that the $13million model has ‘more than 7.4 million hours of safe, successful flight’. 

However, it has previously been involved in fatal crashes in Canada, Turkey, Estonia and the North Sea. 

Dense fog was linked to a 2017 disaster in which a Sikorsky S-76 crashed in the outskirts of Istanbul, killing all seven people on board. 

The company was sold to defense giant Lockheed Martin in 2015.

A Sikorsky statement said yesterday that the company was in contact with investigators and ‘stands ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer’. 

‘We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by today’s accident,’ the statement said.  

The National Transportation Safety Board said it was dispatching an 18-person team to California to help with the investigation into the crash. 

The board typically issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that will give a rough summary of what investigators have learned. A ruling on the cause can take a year or more.   

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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