The pilot in the foggy-weather helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant was well-acquainted with the skies over Los Angeles and accustomed to flying celebrities.
Ara Zobayan, 50, had spent thousands of hours ferrying passengers through one of the nation’s busiest air spaces and training students how to fly a helicopter. Friends and colleagues described him as skilled, cool and collected, the very qualities you want in a pilot.
His decision to proceed in deteriorating visibility, though, has experts and fellow pilots wondering if he flew beyond the boundaries of good judgment and whether pressure to get his superstar client where he wanted to go played a role in the crash.
Jerry Kidrick, a retired Army colonel who flew helicopters in Iraq and now teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, said there can be pressure to fly VIPs despite poor conditions, a situation he experienced when flying military brass in bad weather.
“The perceived pressure is, `Man, if I don’t go, they’re going to find somebody who will fly this thing,”’ Kidrick said.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and six other passengers were killed along with the pilot Sunday morning when the chartered Sikorsky S-76B plowed into a cloud-shrouded hillside in Calabasas as the retired NBA star was on his way to a youth basketball basketball tournament in which Gianna was playing.. The last of the nine bodies was recovered Tuesday.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators have said Zobayan asked for and received permission from air traffic controllers to proceed in the fog. In his last radio transmission before the helicopter went down, he reported that he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer.
Investigators have yet to establish the cause of the crash and have not faulted his decision to press on or explained why he chose to do so.
Randy Waldman, a Los Angeles helicopter flight instructor who viewed tracking data of the flight’s path and saw a photo of the dense fog in the area at the time, speculated that Zobayan got disoriented in the clouds, a common danger for pilots.
He said Zobayan should have turned around or landed but may have felt the pressure to reach his destination, an occupational hazard for pilots often referred to as “got-to-get-there-itis” or “get-home-itis.”
“Somebody who’s a wealthy celebrity who can afford a helicopter to go places, the reason they take the helicopter is so they can get from A to B quickly with no hassle,” Waldman said. “Anybody that flies for a living there’s sort of an inherent pressure to get the job done because if too many times they go, `No, I don’t think I can fly, the weather’s getting bad or it’s too windy,’ … they’re going to lose their job.”’
Helicopter pilot Kurt Deetz said he flew Bryant dozens of times over a two-year period ending in 2017, often to games at Staples Center, and never remembered the Lakers star or his assistants pressing him to fly in bad weather.