Island Express Helicopters, the charter company that employed Kobe Bryant’s pilot, has grounded its fleet of choppers as the FAA reports pilot Ara Zobayan was not cleared to fly in dense fog conditions.
Zobayan, 50, piloted the chopper that was chartered to carry Kobe, 41, his daughter Gianna, 13, and six other passengers from Newport Beach to Camarillo.
The tower lost contact with Zobayan about 2 minutes after warning him that he was too low to be tracked on radar.
The chopper descended rapidly and flew at top speed into a hillside near Calabasas. The crash left debris scattered over 500 feet.
The company which owns six Sikorsky S-76B choppers grounded its fleet as the investigation into Sunday’s tragic crash continues.
Zobayan, who was licensed to fly under instrument rules, didn’t have the legal authority to fly in fog because the company didn’t have necessary certification.
Pilot Kurt Deetz, who previously ferried Kobe to destinations in the same helicopter, said Zobayan wasn’t as experienced flying under instruments only.
Deetz said the pilot likely didn’t have experience flying with instruments only because of the company’s operating limitations.
“There is only one way you can be in the clouds, on an I.F.R. (instrument flight rules) flight plan or by accident,” Deetz said.
Air traffic controllers at Burbank Airport had given Zobayan special visual flight rules clearance to fly with lower visibility due to the foggy conditions. The visibility that day was 3-5 miles – enough distance to see obstacles in front of his windscreen.
The Sikorsky S-76B is the largest and most luxurious helicopter. It is favored by celebrities and wealthy executive clients because of the roomy cabin. The same chopper with a different tail number was previously owned by the state of Illinois (pictured).
Island Express specialized in short hops from Long Beach, California to Catalina Island. A one-way ticket for a 15 minute trip to Catalina Island cost anywhere from $75 to $150 per passenger.