'All Loved Him': Pilot That Died in Helicopter Crash Was a Certified Flight Instructor

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Ara Zobayan was identified by friends as the pilot in the Jan. 26, 2020 crash.
Ara Zobayan, the pilot of the helicopter that crashed on Jan. 27, 2020, is seen in an undated photo. (Credit: KTLA).

The pilot of the helicopter that crashed under foggy conditions into a California hillside killing all nine aboard, including Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, has been identified as Ara Zobayan.

His neighbor, Robert Sapia, told CNN that Zobayan was affable and exacting. He loved his job and would show Sapia photos of the celebrities he would fly around, including Bryant, Sapia said.

Another neighbor, Angie LaPorte, who said she saw him every day at the mailbox found out about Zobayan’s passing from landscapers, who “all loved him.”

“He was kind of a mild-mannered guy,” LaPorte said. “Always pleasant but never super talkative.”

According to the FAA’s pilot certification database, Zobayan is an instrument-certified pilot who earned his commercial pilot’s license in 2007. He is also a certified flight instructor for instrument instruction for helicopter pilots, the records show.

The database also shows Zobayan was up to date on FAA-required annual medical exams.

Pilot Kurt Deetz, who worked at Island Express with Zobayan, said the two had a “jovial working relationship.” He immediately recognized Zobayan’s voice when he heard the Air Traffic Control tower recording. Deetz described Zobayan as outspoken, with a distinctive voice and big personality.

Another fellow pilot, Jared Yochim, told CNN that he also recognized Zobayan’s voice on the recordings.

“There’s a reason that people wanted to fly with him,” Yochim said. “He was just a cool, calm guy.”

The news of the pilot’s death has shaken the small, tight-knit community of helicopter pilots, according to Yochim.

Yochim and Deetz cautioned against armchair speculation about what may have happened.

“We need to wait for [authorities] to complete an investigation. There may be lessons to be learned,” Yochim said.

Visibility was so low Sunday morning that Los Angeles police had grounded its helicopters, spokesman Josh Rubenstein said.

Foggy weather conditions

The helicopter was operating under “special visual flight rules” (SVFR), according to an air traffic control conversation with the pilot, captured by website LiveATC.net.

An SVFR clearance allows a pilot to fly in weather conditions worse than those allowed for regular visual flight rules (VFR).

Pilots can request SVFR clearance before takeoff or mid-flight, especially if conditions suddenly change, CNN transportation analyst Peter Goelz said.

While SVFR clearance is “pretty normal,” he said, “it’s not something that’s often recommended.”

“If you’re a pilot, and you’re in marginal conditions, or changing conditions that become marginal, you might call air traffic control” to request SVFR, Goelz said.

If granted SVFR clearance, the pilot will typically keep tighter communication with air traffic control.

The Burbank Airport control tower allowed the helicopter to proceed using the special clearance, the audio reveals.

The helicopter crash also killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Maria Onore Bryant. They were expected at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks for a basketball game scheduled for Sunday. Gianna was expected to play in the game and Bryant was expected to coach, according to Lady Mavericks team director Evelyn Morales.

The helicopter crash, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, caused a brush fire, Los Angeles County Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby said.

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