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Ara Zobayan, Helicopter Pilot in Kobe Bryant Crash, Had Previous FAA Violation?

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The pilot of a helicopter that crashed into a southern California hillside, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, was reprimanded five years ago, for flying without permission into airspace, while he had reduced visibility, according to a Federal Aviation Administration enforcement record.

Ara Zobayan was counseled by an FAA investigator after he violated FAA rules by crossing into busy airspace, near Los Angeles International Airport in May, according to the record, which was first reported on Friday by the Los Angeles Times. The record doesn’t indicate whether Zobayan was carrying any passengers at the time.

Zobayan, died last month when his helicopter plunged at high speed into a hillside, northwest of Los Angeles. Zobayan had been attempting to climb above a cloud layer, when the aircraft banked left and plunged, at high speed. There has been speculation that the pilot became disoriented in the foggy weather. The crash remains under investigation.

The crash also killed Bryant, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, along with six others. The victims will be honored at a public memorial in Los Angeles next week.

At the time of the incident, Zobayan’s helicopter asked the Los Angeles Airport tower for permission to cross their airspace. Zobayan was told that weather conditions didn’t meet the minimum for pilots using visual flight rules VFR that is, flying by sight.

Zaboyan was asked whether he could maintain “VFR conditions.” Zaboyan replied that he could “maintain special VFR,” meaning he sought permission to fly by sight, in less-than-optimal visibility. When air traffic control denied the request and told him to stay clear of the area, Zobayan replied that he could “maintain VRF,” but during the conversation, the helicopter entered the airspace, according to the record.

Zobayan contacted authorities and his company, after the incident, and was cooperative. But an FAA investigator faulted him for failing to properly plan and review current weather at LAX, which would have allowed him time to communicate earlier with the tower to receive clearance, according to the record. The report said Zobayan “admitted his error, took responsibility for his action and was willing to take any other necessary steps toward compliance.”

The report stated that: “there are no indications that this is a repeated incident, and there are no signs that this incident is a trend with Mr. Zobayan”. Zobayan was counseled “on operating in Class B airspace, special VFR weather minimums, proper planning, reviewing weather, and anticipating required action,” the report said. “He was cooperative and receptive to the counseling.”

Veteran helicopter pilots interviewed by the Los Angeles Times were divided over the severity of the FAA violation.

“I don’t know a single pilot out there who hasn’t violated a rule,” Shawn Coyle said. “If that’s the only violation he’s ever had, then I would say he’s pretty safe.”

But another pilot, Kurt Deetz, said entering LAX airspace without approval can be dangerous, because of the possible presence of commercial jets. He also questioned Zaboyan’s communication with air traffic controllers.

“You can’t request special VFR, and then they deny you, and you say, ‘Oh wait a minute, actually I’m VFR’,” he told the Times. “That’s not how it works. It shows that perhaps his understanding of special VFR, as opposed to VFR, was cloudy.”