Everything we know about Kobe Bryant's helicopter pilot

The Jan. 26, 2020, helicopter crash that claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other people continues to dominate the news cycle while family members, friends, fans, and celebrities mourn the major loss. New details are still coming out about the tragedy, including more information about the pilot, Ara Zobayan, who is among those who lost their lives as he tried to steer the plane to safety through foggy weather conditions that fateful morning. 

Prior to the devastating crash, Bryant had a long history of flying in helicopters. And Zobayan, who was also a flight instructor, had quite a few years of flying experience under his belt. 

While facts about Bryant's legendary basketball career are pretty common knowledge at this point, Zobayan's life was contrastingly not in the public eye. However, that doesn't mean he's not just as worth remembering. Here's what we know about the late pilot.

Ara Zobayan had years of experience and regularly flew Kobe Bryant around

Ara Zobayan, a 50-year-old from Huntington Beach, Calif. was flying a Sikorsky S-76B the morning of the crash, according to the Los Angeles Times. He was described as the "chief pilot" at Island Express Helicopters, where he worked for 10 years after getting his commercial license in 2007. According to Business Insider, Zobayan is the same pilot who flew Kobe Bryant to his final game with the Los Angeles Lakers in April 2016.The publication also reported that Zobayan had more than 8,200 hours of flight time, according to Jennifer Homendy from the National Transportation Safety Board.

"Helicopters are scary machines, but he really knew what he was doing," Gary Johnson, vice president of the airplane parts manufacturer Ace Clearwater Enterprises, told the Associated Press. Johnson flew with Zobayan around 30 times and told AP that he "wouldn't do it unless [Zobayan] was the pilot," clearly putting a lot of trust in his abilities.

He was described as a 'cool, calm' pilot

In the days following the helicopter crash, a few of Ara Zobayan's neighbors spoke to CNN, including Robert Sabia, who described Zobayan as an "affable and exacting guy" who "loved his job." Angie LaPorte said, "He was kind of a mild-mannered guy. Always pleasant but never super talkative." Contrastingly, a pilot named Kurt Deetz, who had a "jovial working relationship" with Zobayan, said he was not that quiet — describing the 50-year-old as "outspoken" with a "big personality." "There's a reason that people wanted to fly with him," another pilot named Jared Yochim told CNN. "He was just a cool, calm guy."

One of Zobayan's flight students, Darren Kemp, told the Los Angeles Times that Kobe Bryant didn't "let anyone else fly him around but Ara." As a certified flight instructor, Zobayan pushed his students to continue pursuing their passion through tough times with Kemp recalling him saying, "If you love this, then nothing will stop you." It couldn't be more obvious that Zobayan loved what he did.

Kylie Jenner called Ara Zobayan 'such a nice man'

Following the news of the fatal crash, Kylie Jenner was among the many celebrities to share her thoughts online. Along with photos of all nine victims, Jenner wrote on her Instagram Story (as seen in a screenshot on Twitter), "rest in peace..and prayers to these families. i still can't believe this. that was the helicopter i would fly on from time to time with that pilot, Ara." She added of Ara Zobayan, "he was such a nice man. hold your loved ones close." Per Us Weekly, Jenner even took her niece, Dream Kardashian, on a birthday helicopter ride with Zobayan in November 2019.

In addition to Jenner, Golden Globe-nominated actor Lorenzo Lamas spoke to Extra about Zobayan, who he considered "a very dear friend." Lamas knew the pilot for nearly 20 years and said their "long history of friendship" made the news especially difficult to process. "Every single person in aviation, every pilot that came in contact with him would attest to his abilities to his ethics to his knowledge. He was just an incredible pilot," Lamas said.

Kobe's pilot was given special permission to fly that day

On the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, the foggy weather conditions made visibility so bad that the Los Angeles Police Department grounded their helicopters. However, as reported by the Washington Post, Kobe Bryant's pilot Ara Zobayan was granted special clearance to fly. Zobayan was reportedly qualified to fly in poor weather conditions, because of regulations called "instrument flight rules."

According to CNNthe pilot got in touch with the control tower to request flight following — a type of radar assistance to avoid air traffic — but because he was too low at that point, they could not provide such assistance. Zobayan told the control tower that he planned to fly above a cloud, but, as Jennifer Homendy from the National Transportation Safety Board explained (via BuzzFeed), "Radar data indicates the helicopter climbed to 2,300 feet and then began a left descending turn. Last radar contact was around 9:45 a.m. and is consistent with the accident location." At the time of this writing, the exact cause of the crash remains under investigation.

How things played out is undeniably tragic for all of the victims and their loved ones, and when it comes to Zobayan, it sounds like he was truly a well-respected guy and top-notch pilot. Our thoughts are with all of the victims' families during this difficult time.