Grand Canyon visit inspired Kobe Bryant’s pilot to fly

Sports

This undated photo provided by Group 3 Aviation shows helicopter pilot Ara Zobayan, who was at the controls of the helicopter that crashed in Southern California, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, killing all nine aboard including former Lakers star Kobe Bryant. (Group 3 Aviation via AP)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Ara Zobayan’s passion for helicopters began as a teenager and took flight years later after a life-changing trip soaring above the vast Grand Canyon.

The freedom felt by the man who would become Kobe Bryant’s pilot was transformational, inspiring Zobayan to scrimp and save to take lessons and learn to pilot the aircraft himself.

“It tapped into what he felt he was here on Earth to do: to fly and to teach, and to teach people to have this feeling that he had,” said an emotional Darren Kemp, a student pilot of Zobayan who became a close friend.

Zobayan’s journey from pupil to pilot to the stars ended Sunday when the Sikorsky aircraft he was flying crashed into a hillside outside Los Angeles, killing him Bryant and the other seven aboard. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident, including any role heavy fog played.

The helicopter’s owner, Island Express Helicopters, announced Thursday that it is suspending flights indefinitely.

“The shock of the accident affected all staff, and management decided that service would be suspended until such time as it was deemed appropriate for staff and customers,” the company said in a statement.

The 50-year-old Zobayan was the chief pilot for the charter service and had more than 8,200 hours of flight time. He was additionally certified to fly solely using instruments — a more difficult rating to attain that allows pilots to fly at night and through clouds.

But on the day of the disaster, he was flying under special visual flight rules that require pilots to see where they are going.

He had completed the same flight the day before — Orange County to Ventura County — but Sunday morning brought fog so heavy it grounded helicopters for the Los Angeles Police Department and county sheriff. Zobayan was forced to detour around the San Fernando Valley until he could return to follow U.S. Highway 101 in Calabasas.

In his final radio transmission to air traffic controllers, Zobayan said he was climbing to avoid a cloud layer before the helicopter plunged more than 1,000 feet (305 meters) into a hillside.

The helicopter didn’t have a crash-alert warning device called the Terrain Awareness and Warning System that signals when an aircraft is in danger of hitting ground.

The NTSB had recommended the system be required for helicopters but the Federal Aviation Administration only requires it for air ambulances.

On Thursday, U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman, D-Los Angeles, said he is introducing a bill requiring the FAA to mandate the devices as part of new safety standards.

The death of Bryant shocked the sporting world. It also shook those who were endeared to Zobayan as much for his skills in the skies as the smile that greeted them each time they would fly.

“He was one of their best pilots,” said Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, who flew with him to commute from his home in San Diego to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles where the Clippers and Lakers play.

“That’s a guy who you ask for to fly you from city to city,” Leonard said Wednesday. “He’ll be like, ‘I just dropped Kobe off and he said hello.’ ”

Born in Lebanon in 1970, a teenage Zobayan by chance sat next to a helicopter mechanic on the flight taking him to the United States.

The mechanic lent Zobayan a helicopter magazine, which the youth devoured for the remainder of the flight, said Chuck Street, executive director of the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Operators Association.

When he had saved enough money, he took that fateful helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon.

“After that experience, he became laser-focused on becoming a helicopter pilot,” Street said.

Zobayan began taking lessons in 1998 at Group 3 Aviation at the Van Nuys airport in Los Angeles, where he would ultimately become a flight instructor, Group 3 owners Peter and Claudia Lowry said in a statement.

Zobayan remained so dedicated to his craft that he continued to wash aircraft and vacuum offices even as he ascended in his career, Street said.

Kemp, the former student, said Zobayan inspired him to become a better pilot. His mentor was a stickler for pre-flight checklists, Kemp said, and would make his students sit in the pilot and passenger seats.

“He was like, ‘The way you do it, you have to become it. Go sit in the copter, go touch it, go feel it,’ ” Kemp recalled.

In a video Kemp once shot in the cockpit, a grinning Zobayan is wearing sunglasses and a green headset as he salutes. Kemp sometimes called him “Big Z,” a gentle tease because Zobayan was slim and slight in stature.

The two bonded like brothers and spoke almost every other day, Kemp said. Over dinners at Captain Jack’s in Huntington Beach near Zobayan’s home, the teacher would call his student “captain” as he talked about his girlfriend, chauffeuring Bryant and offering flying tips.

Clients said they trusted Zobayan implicitly, bringing their children and grandchildren along on flights, often to Santa Catalina Island — the main destination for Island Express.

Margaret Bray flew with Zobayan often to and from her restaurant, Maggie’s Blue Rose, on the island off the coast of Los Angeles.

“He always had this big smile, this infectious smile,” Bray said.

Zobayan would often take his lunch breaks at her restaurant and told her about a recent trip to Spain. Bray, who like Zobayan is of Armenian descent, said she’d tease him when she saw him on TV as part of Bryant’s “entourage.”

“I think Kobe and him had this friendship,” she said. “It wasn’t like pilot and customer.”

Basketball players weren’t his only celebrity passengers — Kylie Jenner and actor Lorenzo Lamas mourned his passing.

Zobayan and Lamas, a fellow pilot and friend, flew the ex-girlfriend of comedian Andy Dick around in a chopper for an episode of “Celebrity Wife Swap.”

Clients sought out Zobayan and would book trips well in advance.

Gary Johnson, vice president of airplane parts manufacturer Ace Clearwater Enterprises, said he had flown with Zobayan about 30 times in roughly eight years, and was looking forward to a trip with him next month.

“He was the one I always requested,” Johnson said. “He was just sort of those magic souls you run into every now and then.”

Johnson said he’s not sure if he’ll still do the sightseeing trip in February without his favorite pilot.

“I hope he’s up there in the clouds right now,” Johnson said.

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Associated Press sports writer Beth Harris contributed to this story.

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