Ara Zobayan of Huntington Beach — the pilot of the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas on Sunday, killing nine people, including Zobayan and retired Lakers star Kobe Bryant — was an experienced flier and a certified flight instructor with more than 8,000 hours of flight time, sources said this week.
Bryant regularly used the helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76B owned by the charter service Island Express. Records show the aircraft had flown between John Wayne Airport, where it took off Sunday morning, and Camarillo Airport, where it was heading, about two dozen times in the past two years.
Kurt Deetz, a pilot who worked at Island Express and said he flew Bryant from 2014 to 2016, told the Los Angeles Times that after he left the company, Zaboyan became Bryant’s go-to pilot.
The company said he was “our chief pilot” and had been with Island Express for 10 years.
National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said Monday that Zobayan, 50, had a commercial certificate and was a certified flight instructor who had 8,200 hours of flight time as of July.
Zobayan was an instrument-certified pilot who earned his commercial license in 2007, according to the Federal Aviation Administration’s pilot certification database.
The database also shows Zobayan was up to date on FAA-required annual medical exams, according to news reports.
Even though poor weather forced Zobayan to swing northeast of his usual flight path, Sunday’s route would have been very familiar to him, Deetz told The Times.
“It wasn’t a question of him not knowing the neighborhood,” Deetz said.
Zobayan was reliable and not known for risky flying, said Deetz, who knew him as “Big Z.”
“He loved calling himself that,” Deetz told The Times. “He wasn’t big.”
Zobayan’s neighbor, Robert Sapia, told CNN that Zobayan loved his job and would show him photos of the celebrities he would fly around, including Bryant.
Another neighbor, Angie LaPorte, said he was “kind of a mild-mannered guy.” “Always pleasant but never super talkative,” she told CNN.
Flight student Darren Kemp told The Times that when he heard Bryant had died in a helicopter crash, his heart sank. Kemp knew that his flight teacher, Zobayan, was Bryant’s private pilot.
“He doesn’t let anyone else fly him around but Ara,” Kemp said.
Kemp recalled Zobayan as a dedicated, caring instructor who wanted to help his students succeed. A video that Kemp filmed in the cockpit showed Zobayan in sunglasses and a mint-green headset, grinning and doing a mock salute at the camera.
When Kemp got divorced, Zobayan helped him through it, he said. When Kemp felt like dropping out, Zobayan encouraged him, telling him, “If you love this, then nothing will stop you.”
“It turns out he was right,” Kemp said.