Kobe Bryant's pilot disciplined in 2015 for visibility-related flight violation near LAX

Ara Zobayan, the pilot of the helicopter that crashed into a Calabasas hillside last month killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, was reprimanded in 2015 for violating federal fight rules regarding visibility near Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), the Los Angeles Times reported.

Zobayan took responsibility for the incident and underwent counseling from the FAA that included special visual flight rules (VFR) weather minimums, proper planning and reviewing weather, per the report.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration records obtained by the Times:

“Had Mr. Zobayan properly planned and reviewed current weather at LAX, he would have been able to anticipate the required action to transit ... resulting in proper coordination.”

Whether it is a severe violation depends on who is asked. Zobayan, 50, was also killed in the crash. Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the rest of the victims will be honored at a memorial service Monday at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Kobe’s pilot disciplined for flight violation

In May 2015, Zobayan was flying northbound in a AS350 helicopter for Island Express Helicopters, the company he was flying for last month, and was using his sight as a guide through weather. He contacted LAX to gain clearance to fly through the airspace, but was told there were less than three miles of visibility and a cloud ceiling at least 1,000 feet above the ground, per the report.

The pilot asked to go through the airspace under special VFR, which would allow him to fly through even though the conditions did not meet the minimum standard for flying using sight only and no instruments.

The tower denied the request, telling him to navigate around, but Zobayan said he “could maintain VFR” and continued flying northbound through the airspace without approval, per the report.

FAA: No indication it was a trend

Zobayan was faulted for a lack of preparation in not knowing the weather at LAX ahead of time and planning for “proper coordination.” He underwent counseling on proper protocol and how to plan for such things.

The FAA investigator wrote in the 2015 report he did not believe the pilot should undergo remedial training and it didn’t seem to be a consistent issue.

“There are no indications that this is a repeated incident and there are no signs that this incident is a trend with Mr. Zobayan or any other [Island Express Helicopter] personnel,” the investigator wrote.

Federal authorities are investigating the crash last month in which Zoboyan’s helicopter crashed into the hillside of Calabasas, killing all nine people on board. Experts believe it was a weather-related crash and 911 calls highlight the poor weather the morning of Jan. 26 in Los Angeles. The Sikorsky S-76B that Zobayan was flying that day was not equipped with a terrain alert system that would have warned the pilot he was approaching a hillside.

Opinions mix on severity of violation

Pilots who spoke to the Los Angeles Times talked about the severity of the VFR violation.

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

Pilots noted that they’re taught to check weather conditions along the route before takeoff and that LAX doesn’t typically allow helicopters to fly under special rules. It’s also dangerous given all the air transport around the area.

Another pilot, Shawn Coyle, said he doesn’t know anyone “who hasn’t violated a rule” and if that’s his only transgression, he’s “pretty safe.”

The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others crashed into the Calabasas hills. (James Anderson/National Transportation Safety Board via AP)
The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others crashed into the Calabasas hills. (James Anderson/National Transportation Safety Board via AP)

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