The veteran aviator tasked with navigating NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s doomed helicopter through the foggy California skies was remembered by his celebrity pals and clientele as an “incredible pilot” and “truly great human.”
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Ara Zobayan was operating the Sikorsky S-76B in Calabasas, California, around 10 a.m. local time Sunday when the luxury chopper crashed into a mountain after failing to navigate through heavy fog.
The chartered helicopter was a luxury twin-engine aircraft often used by Bryant in traffic-jumping hops around the LA area’s notoriously congested sprawl. It was heading from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Camarillo Airport in Ventura County.
The pilot had asked for and received special clearance to fly in heavy fog just minutes before Sunday's crash and was flying at 1,400 feet when he went south and then west, said Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board, which went to the crash scene Monday to collect evidence. The federal agency was continuing its investigation on Tuesday.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and the other passengers were heading to the retired basketball star's Mamba Sports Academy, a youth sports center in Thousand Oaks. Bryant was to coach a basketball tournament there in which his daughter was supposed to play.
All nine people aboard, including Zobayan, died in the crash. In addition to Zobayan, Kobe Bryant and his daughter, the six other victims were identified as John Altobelli, 56, longtime head coach of Southern California's Orange Coast College baseball team; his wife, Keri; and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same basketball team as Bryant's daughter; Sarah Chester and her daughter; and Christina Mauser, a girls' basketball coach at a Southern California elementary school.
The longtime aviator was the chief pilot for the craft’s owner, Island Express Helicopters, and a flight instructor with more than 8,000 hours of flight time. He first received his private pilot license with a helicopter rating in 2001, a commercial pilot license in 2007 and had no history of aircraft incidents, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson told FOX Business.
He was known and well-respected in the pilot community, including by friends Jared Yochim and actor-turned-aviator Lorenzo Lamas.
Lamas, an actor, director and fellow pilot, starred in an episode of “Celebrity Wife Swap” on ABC in 2013, when he temporarily traded wives with comedian Andy Dick. The episode also featured an appearance by Zobayan, according to a Facebook post from the day the segment aired.
He posted a tribute on Monday afternoon to his Facebook, where he wrote, “I miss you my friend.”
“I will always remember the laughs we shared and the skies we flew together,” he said, along with a photo of Zobayan standing in front of a helicopter. “You were my mentor, my instructor, but most importantly a truly great human. You will be missed so much and never forgotten by this fellow aviator. You are forever flying now my friend and I long for the day we are reunited in heaven.”
Zobayan has flown other high-profile clientele, such as beauty influencer Kylie Jenner.
The billionaire entrepreneur posted a tribute to the victims to her Instagram, where she wrote, in part: “[T]hat was the helicopter I would fly on from time to time with that pilot, Ara. He was such a nice man. Hold your loved ones close.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.