In the hours since a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter crashed in Calabasas, California, on Sunday, gut-wrenching accounts have trickled out about the seven other passengers on board. Among them was 50-year-old Huntington Beach resident Ara Zobayan, the pilot of the aircraft who had a clean safety record and was attempting to travel through adverse conditions.
Before Sunday’s crash, the pilot and flight instructor had no prior accidents or flight incidents, according to Ian Gregor, a California spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration. Zobayan received his first private pilot license with a helicopter rating on January 21, 2001, and his commercial pilot license on December 3, 2007.
But long before then, he had learned to fly at Group 3 Aviation, an intimate flight school in Van Nuys, California. According to the school’s president, Claudia Lowry, Zobayan had come to the small academy in 1998—and quickly became embedded in their community. “This is where Ara learned to fly,” she told The Daily Beast. “This is where Ara worked. We’ve known him since 1998. He’s a dear friend and family.”
Lowry pointed to a post on Facebook, where she had posted a tribute to her friend. In the images, Zobayan, a trim man with a shaved head and light grey scruff, poses in sunglasses beside three helicopters.
After learning to fly, Zobayan worked at Group 3 as a flight instructor. One of his students there, Darren Kemp, told the Los Angeles Times that Zobayan had worked as Bryant’s private pilot for some time. “[Bryant] doesn’t let anyone else fly him around but Ara,” Kemp told the paper. As his instructor, Kemp and Zobayan had been close––the student recalled how his teacher had helped him through a difficult divorce.
Zobayan later took a job as a pilot at Island Express Holding Corporation, the family-owned helicopter charter company that contracts with Catalina Island to do local tours and was listed as the owner of the vehicle that crashed Sunday. The vehicle, a Sikorsky S-76B, was nearly 30 years old at the time of the crash, having spent several years in the possession of the state of Illinois before getting sold to Island Express in 2015. Representatives for Island Express did not return requests for comment for this story.
Zobayan was a licensed instrument pilot, meaning that he was trained on the safety and navigational tools needed to fly under poor weather conditions. According to Gregor at the FAA, he added an instrument rating to his private pilot license on October 20, 2007. On the day of the crash, flight conditions were poor, with ceilings as low as 300 feet, meaning that thick clouds were forming not far above the ground, and visibility above them was impossible. The Los Angeles Police Department confirmed Monday morning that the fog had grounded all of their aircraft, and an employee at a helicopter charter service that does business in the area told The Daily Beast that they had also suspended service. “It was a no fly day for us and pretty much all operators,” the employee said.
In recordings from Zobayan’s conversations with aircraft controllers published by LiveATC.net, you can hear the pilot activating what’s called “Special Visual Flight Rules,” meaning that the air controllers might help him detect things he couldn’t himself see. “If you listen to the audio recordings,” the charter employee said, “he asked to be tracked by air traffic control—which means, I need you to track me because I’m in bad conditions.”
Jared Yochim, a pilot who said he worked as a Chevron contractor in Angola and knew Zobayan for 12 years, told The Daily Beast on Monday it was important for "armchair quarterbacks" to allow time for federal officials to investigate before jumping to conclusions about his friend.
“When you think of pilots and you think Tom Cruise and Maverick, that wasn't what was happening there,” he said. “I promise you, any flying that Ara was doing... he was in a safe condition. He’s not a guy to push limits. He’s a rule follower and he knows the rules and the regulations.”
Zobayan’s aircraft hit the ground at approximately 9:47 a.m. Pacific, leaving a crash site that authorities say will take more than eight days to fully excavate.
The pilot was of Armenian descent, according to The Armenian Report, a Facebook page for English-language news in that community, and news of his death brought an outpouring from across Los Angeles. “I love all Armenians!,” a Facebook user named Maria Daikovich wrote under the post. “I met Ara many years ago. This is such a big loss. Ara was the kindness and one of the most beautiful people I know. 🙏🏽🙌🏼RIP dear Ara. God bless all who lost their lives.”
Jason McGahan contributed reporting to this story.