01/28 17:32 CST Was Kobe Bryant's pilot feeling pressure to fly that day?
Was Kobe Bryant's pilot feeling pressure to fly that day?
By BRIAN MELLEY, DAVID KOENIG and BERNARD CONDON
LOS ANGELES (AP) --- 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
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.
"There was never any pressure Kobe put on any pilot to get somewhere --- never,
never," Deetz said. "I think he really understood professionalism. `You do your
job. I trust you.' "
Deetz said that he flew with Zobayan a half-dozen times and that he was
familiar with airspace and terrain around Los Angeles and knew "the back doors"
-- alternative routes in case of trouble, such as changes in the weather.
Others who knew Zobayan praised him as unflappable and skilled at the controls.
"Helicopters are scary machines, but he really knew what he was doing," said
Gary Johnson, vice president of airplane parts manufacturer Ace Clearwater
Enterprises, who had flown with Zobayan about 30 times in roughly eight years.
"I wouldn't do it unless he was the pilot."
The NTSB's Jennifer Homendy said investigators in the crash that killed Bryant
will be looking at everything, from the pilot's history and actions to the
condition of the helicopter. "We look at man, machine and the environment," she
said. "And weather is just a small portion of that."
Zobayan was chief pilot for the craft's owner, Island Express Helicopters. He
also was a flight instructor, had more than 8,000 hours of flight time and had
flown Bryant and other celebrities several times before, including Kylie Jenner.
He even had a bit TV part when he and actor Lorenzo Lamas, a fellow pilot, flew
the ex-girlfriend of comedian Andy Dick around in a chopper for an episode of
"Celebrity Wife Swap."
Island Express has had three previous helicopter crashes since 1985, two of
them fatal, according to the NTSB''s accident database. All involved flights to
or from the company's main destination of Santa Catalina Island, about 20 miles
off the Southern California coast.
In 2008, three people were killed and three injured when an Island Express
helicopter was destroyed as it came in for a landing on the island.
Investigators said the chopper lost power, probably as a result of cracking in
turbine blades inside the engine.
In 1985, an Island Express helicopter returning from the island collided with
another chopper near a landing pad in Los Angeles. One person died and 11 were
Fatal helicopter accidents have fluctuated between 17 and 30 a year since 2013,
according to a safety group that includes representatives of the helicopter
industry and the Federal Aviation Administration. The rate of accidents per
hours flown has declined slightly over that time.
The Federal Aviation Administration warns helicopter pilots that it is their
job to decide whether to cancel a flight because of bad weather or other risks,
and to have a backup plan in case weather worsens during the flight.
Inclement weather has been cited as a cause of other deadly celebrity
Grammy-winning blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan was among five people killed
in 1990 when their helicopter slammed into a hill in dense fog after leaving a
concert in Wisconsin. Music promoter Bill Graham and two others, including the
pilot, were killed when the pilot ignored warnings not to fly in rain and fog
and flew into power lines outside San Francisco in 1991.
Bret Mosher, a commercial jet pilot in the Los Angeles area, said some plane
owners pressure him to fly solo rather than with the added expense of another
"Typically these owners, they are successful people in business, they're type-A
personalities. They are make-it-happen, get-it-done personalities," Mosher
said. "A couple of them have said half-joking and half-serious --- well,
probably more than half-serious -- ?Aren't you tough enough?' or ?Aren't you
trained well enough?' or ?Aren't you good enough?' "
Condon reported from New York and Koenig from Dallas. Associated Press writers
Justin Pritchard and Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles contributed to this story.