Ara Zobayan, the helicopter pilot flying Kobe Bryant, the basketball star’s daughter and six other passengers on sunday grappled with poor weather, asking at one point for special permission to fly by sight in worse than normal visibility, but displayed no signs of concern in his communications with air traffic controllers.
However, shortly after he received special clearance to continue through controlled airspace, he veered away from Highway 101 below and crashed into the Calabasas, Calif. hills. All nine people onboard were killed.
On Monday, the investigation got underway, with a team from the National Transportation Safety Board arriving at a crash site guarded against curious eyes by sheriff’s deputies on horseback, as the sports world continued to mourn the death of one of its greats.
The poor weather will be one dimension of the crash investigation and investigators asked the public to send them photos showing conditions at the time but the pilot’s record and the helicopter’s maintenance history will also be part of the review.
“We are not just focusing on weather,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said. “We look at man, machine and the environment, and weather is just a small portion of that.”
In air traffic control records reviewed by The Washington Post, the pilot requested permission to fly under the special conditions near Burbank Airport. Homendy said the pilot circled for 12 minutes until the approval came.
On the records reviewed by The Post, the Burbank controller responds that it will be a few moments and asks the pilot to hold. Seconds later, the controller tells the pilot that he can plan to transition to the north side of Van Nuys Airport. He tells the pilot several departures are coming off a runway and to “expect to follow the I-5 north and cross that way.”
“No problem,” the pilot responds, according to the audio captured by the website LiveATC.
Ara Zobayan, the pilot at the controls, was experienced at flying in the area and served as Bryant’s pilot for a number of years, according to the director of a Los Angeles aviation trade group. Zobayan had held a commercial license since 2007 and was qualified to fly in bad weather under regulations known as instrument flight rules, according to FAA records. He was also qualified to teach people to fly in those conditions, indicating that he had significant experience.
Nevertheless, Jeff Guzzetti, a former crash investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the weather could have been a factor in the crash and pointed to numerous incidents in which pilots have been caught off guard.
Guzzetti said it appears the weather worsened as the pilot tried to follow special visual flight rules (VFR), which meant he had to fly lower to keep clear of the clouds and be able to see the ground below. He said a question for investigators now will be, “Why did this flight occur when the weather was so poor?”
As investigators began to search the debris field on the hillside and understand the fatal crash, a stunned sports world expressed its grief. There were six NBA games scheduled Monday, but the Lakers had the night off. The team returned to Los Angeles from a road trip Sunday, and officials and players, including superstar LeBron James, looked upset coming off the plane.
“There were lots of tears, disbelief and shock,” said a person who was on the plane, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “Everyone was reading Twitter and hoping the first reports weren’t true.”
Players and team officials have made no public comments even the team’s official Twitter account had gone dark but behind the scenes, preparations were underway to honor Bryant, one of the game’s most visible and celebrated stars. The Lakers had been scheduled to host the crosstown Clippers on Tuesday night at Staples Center, where Bryant has two numbers 8 and 24 hanging from the rafters.