The pilot flying the helicopter that crashed into a Los Angeles County hillside late last month, killing retired NBA star Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi, the pilot and six others, had once violated federal flight rules by flying over airspace near the Los Angeles International Airport against the orders of air traffic control, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
Ara Zobayan in 2015 was denied clearance to fly an AS350 into the airspace because of reduced visibility and weather conditions, The Los Angeles Times reported.
“Had Mr. Zobayan properly planned and reviewed current weather at LAX, he would have been able to anticipate the required action to transit … resulting in proper coordination,” the 2015 report said, adding “There are no indications that this is a repeated incident and there are no signs that this incident is a trend with Mr. Zobayan.”
Pilot Ara Zobayan was at the controls of the helicopter that crashed in Southern California on Jan. 26, 2020, killing all nine people aboard including former Lakers star Kobe Bryant. (Group 3 Aviation via AP)
Zobayan took responsibility for his mistake and was counseled by an FAA investigator afterward, the FAA said in the report.
Helicopter pilot Shawn Coyle told The Times the violation was considered minor and he doesn’t know a pilot who hasn’t violated a rule.
“If that’s the only violation he’s ever had then I would say he’s pretty safe,” he said.
Zobayan was attempting to climb out of a cloud layer on Jan. 26 when the chartered helicopter dropped 1,200 feet into a hillside in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, killing everyone on board.
Zobayan was the chief pilot for Island Express Helicopters Inc. at the time of the crash, the same company he flew for in 2015.
Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Island Express Helicopters, told the newspaper, “You can’t request special VFR and then they deny you and you say, ‘Oh wait a minute, actually I’m VFR’,” he said. “That’s not how it works. It shows that perhaps his understanding of special VFR, as opposed to VFR, was cloudy.”
Island Express reported that it conducted additional ground and flight training with him after the 2015 incident.
In 2015, he requested to continue flying using special visual flight rules (VFR), which would allow him to fly in suboptimal visibility conditions but was denied, unlike last month when he was granted the request.
Bryant and Gigi will be honored at a sold-out memorial Monday at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the basketball legend spent his career as a Laker.