Federal Investigators have released documents showing that the pilot of the aircraft Kobe Bryant was traveling in when he died may have become disoriented during the flight.
New information released on June 17 shows the pilot, Ara Zobayan, potentially believed he was ascending when he was descending in the aircraft, AP reported.
The National Transportation Safety Board report details that Zobayan, who was carrying former NBA superstar Bryant, Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers to Camarillo Airport, California, on January 26, 2020, “radioed to air traffic controllers that he was climbing to 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) to get above clouds on Jan. 26 when, in fact, the chopper was plunging toward a hillside where it crashed northwest of Los Angeles, killing all nine people aboard.”
The passengers were flying to a youth basketball game at Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.
AP reported that Zobayan may have miscalculated both the pitch and roll angles during the flight.
The chopper’s “erratic path” was a “telltale signs of a pilot becoming disoriented in conditions that make it hard to see terrain or the horizon,” aviation safety consultant John Cox said.
Here’s what you need to know about Ara Zobayan:
1. Zobayan Had Received Further Training Following FAA Citations
Heavy and USA Today previously reported that “Zobayan was reprimanded for flying without permission into an airspace with low visibility” in 2015. The information was revealed a month after the fatal 2020 crash.
According to USA Today, Zobayan “violated FAA rules by crossing into busy airspace near Los Angeles International Airport on May 11, 2015.”
In 2015, while Zobayan was flying somewhere near Hawthorne, California, he twice requested, and was denied, approval to enter airspace over LAX. He sought permission to fly by “special VFR” — meaning to fly by sight.
The request was denied due to poor visibility and weather conditions. Zobayan incited a violation by disregarding the instruction, and entering the airspace regardless.
FAA investigators found Zobayan “admitted his error, took responsibility for his action, and was willing to take any other necessary steps toward compliance.” The charter service Island Express Helicopters Inc., who Zobayan was flying for, “reported that it conducted additional ground and flight training with Zobayan.”
In addition to further training with Island and the FAA, Zobayan was counseled “on operating in Class B airspace, special VFR weather minimums, proper planning, reviewing weather, and anticipating required action,” according to the report.
The Los Angeles Times reported Zobayan was flying “amidst dense fog” when he crashed a 1991 Sikorsky S-76B into a hillside near Los Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street.
Island Express ended their operations shortly after the fatal crash. A preliminary report found no evidence of engine or mechanical failure, the Los Angeles Times said.
As helicopters in the U.S. are not required to contain flight data recorders or cockpit voice recorders, the full cause of the crash remains unknown.
2. A Lawsuit Filed by Kobe Bryant’s Wife Claims Zobayan was ‘Negligent’
While Island Express called the crash “an accident,” Kobe Bryant’s wife Vanessa Bryant sued the company, claiming the pilot was negligent.
TMZ reported that the lawsuit “claims the pilot failed to properly monitor and assess the weather prior to takeoff, failed to obtain proper weather data prior to the flight, failed to abort the flight when he knew of the cloudy condition, failed to maintain control of the helicopter and failed to avoid ‘natural obstacles’ in the flight path.”
The lawsuit also claimed “Defendant Island Express Helicopters’ breach of its duty and negligence caused the injuries and damages complained of herein and Plaintiffs’ deceased, Kobe Bryant, was killed as a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan for which Defendant Island Express Helicopters is vicariously liable in all respects.”
People reported on June 8 that Vanessa Bryant “submitted a case summary statement to Los Angeles Superior Court that details the extensive damages she is pursuing from her wrongful death lawsuit against Island Express Helicopters.”
As a result of Kobe Bryant’s and GB’s deaths, Vanessa Bryant seeks economic damages, non-economic damages, prejudgment interest, punitive damages, and other relief as the Court deems just and proper.
Although the total specific amount of personal injury damages that Plaintiff seeks is TBD, Kobe Bryant’s future lost earnings equal hundreds of millions of dollars
3. Zobayan’s Brother Says Kobe Bryant Knew the Risks of Flying
Berge Zobayan said in court documents filed in May that Kobe Bryant knew the risks of flying in a helicopter, and that his brother should not be held responsible for what happened.
According to NBC, Berge Zobayan said “this negligence was a substantial factor in causing their purported damages.”
The answer read, in part:
Any injuries or damages to plaintiffs and/or their decedent were directly caused in full or in part by the negligence or fault of plaintiffs and/or their decedent, including their knowing and voluntary encounter with the risks involved, and that this negligence was a substantial factor in causing their purported damages, for which this answering defendant bears no responsibility.
Island Express “responded in court documents … saying that Bryant ‘had actual knowledge of all of the circumstances, particular dangers, and an appreciation of the risks involved’ in the flight and still chose to board. They said they are not responsible and the crash was ‘an act of God.'”
4. Zobayan was of Armenian Descent, Loved Food, & is Remembered by Some as ‘a Skilled Pilot With a Passion for Flying’
HyeTert and The Armenian Report identify Zobayan as being of Armenian descent.
Peter and Claudia Lowry, owners of Group 3 Aviation, said “a helicopter sightseeing tour of the Grand Canyon sparked a passion for flying in Ara Zobayan that turned into a long career ferrying and training others.”
The OC Register reported “Zobayan, 50, of Huntington Beach … became a private pilot [in 2001.] In 2007, he got his commercial pilot’s license; and in 2008, he got certified to be a ground instructor, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said. Past Facebook posts from Group 3 Aviation show that Zobayan taught many trainees to become pilots.”
Previous Facebook threads also stated Zobayan helped to train candidates for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Pilot and passenger of Zobayan, Adam Alexander, called him a “very safe, very skilled, very talented pilot.”
Zobayan loved food, boats, travel, and talking about his girlfriend, the OC Register said. He once “in a bit of a joking way … reprimanded Bryant for showing up to his ride late,” according to his friend, Margaret Bray, a restaurant owner in Avalon on Catalina Island.
5. Zobayan Appeared in an Episode of ‘Celebrity Wife Swap’ with Andy Dick
Zobayan could be seen alongside Lorenzo Lamas and comedian Andy Dick in an episode of ‘Celebrity Wife Swap’ from July 2013. In the episode, Lamas, an actor, director and fellow pilot, temporarily traded wives with Andy Dick.
At the time of the episode’s airing, Lamas wrote on Facebook: “Tune in to ABC this Sunday 8pm to see Ara and me fly Andy Dick’s baby momma around on ‘Celebrity Wife Swap’ lol.”
Lamas later posted a tribute to Zobayan on his Facebook, simply writing: “I miss you my friend.”