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Dying to Please

Posted 3 years 28 days ago ago by Admin

As professional pilots, we naturally want to please our passengers, get them to their destination on time, give them a memorable flight, and of course we want to do it safely.  But if we are not careful, an overwhelming urge to please our passengers can overpower our good judgment, creating a mental blind spot to a link or links in an error chain forming, which can lead us into a deadly trap. That is what happened to Ara Zobayan, the pilot tasked to fly Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and six others to his Mamba Sports Academy near Thousand Oaks, California, where Bryant was scheduled to coach a game.  Sadly, and to the shock of the sports world, none of them made it to their destination. 

Kobe Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, was not in the helicopter on that fateful day. However, during the accident investigation it was reported that for years she trusted Zobayan’s ability.  He worked for Island Express Helicopters and the vice president for the company, Whitney Bagge, told crash investigators, “I loved Ara and would often fly in the helicopter with him,” adding, “…and I was notoriously picky, churning through limo drivers, sometimes just because I just didn't like them.” 

Kobe had faith in the pilot’s abilities as well, often happy to let Zobayan fly his girls, by themselves, to their basketball games.  Patti Taylor, Kobe’s travel broker said, “Kobe trusted Ara with his girls and family, which was paramount to him." Kobe Bryant even gave Zobayan a nickname, affectionately calling him “Mr. Pilot Man.”  The Bryant household obviously held their pilot in high regard; it was a sentiment that would change dramatically.

Vanessa Bryant filed a lawsuit against Ara Zobayan (posthumously) blaming him for Kobe’s death. The complaint alleges Zobayan was negligent and failed to “use ordinary care in piloting,” and that Island Express Helicopters is liable for the resulting crash. Its accusations cover over 90 pages and claims in part, “Kobe was killed as a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan. “The pilot’s actions,” it states, “were wanton, willful, callous, reckless, and depraved.” 

This turn of events should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us. Admittedly this was an extremely high-profile case, but it could happen to any of us if we are found culpable in the death or injury of any of the passengers we carry. 

We in the industry should take away a huge lesson from this accident: we can be on best of terms, even good friends, buddy-buddy, with those we carry but if they get hurt and it’s proven to be our fault, our reputation and our estate can come under vicious attack, possibly resulting in bankruptcy or worse for our loved ones left behind.

Ara Zobayan had been Bryant’s pilot for several years.  The lawsuit claims that he should have more accurately monitored weather and conditions on that foggy day and aborted the flight when it appeared too dangerous to fly. The lawsuit also notes that the FAA cited Zobayan personally (not great for a pilot’s defense) because in 2015 it had issued Island Express a limited certificate that only allowed its pilots to operate in visual metrological conditions (VMC) and not certified to fly in instrument conditions.

It’s not like Ara Zobayan was an inexperienced pilot—quite the contrary.  According to Fabian Salazar, the NTSB’s accident investigator, Zobayan had logged 8,577 flight hours and 1,250 hours in the S-76.  He held an instrument instructor’s certificate, CFII, and had logged 75 hours instrument time and had flown in the area for 10 years.  His indoctrination through Sikorsky S-76 training included: aeronautical decision making and judgment, Instrument, procedures, unusual attitude recovery, inadvertent entry into IMC procedures, and spatial orientation training. As chief pilot, Zobayan supervised and trained other Island Express pilots. As check airman he evaluated other Sikorsky S-76 pilots during their annual proficiency and line checks.

Thirteen days after the accident, Zobayan’s friends and family gathered in secret at an airport hangar in Fullerton, California, out of public view to celebrate Zobayan’s life. Tess Davidson, Zobayan’s longtime girlfriend, opened the service. Other speakers followed. They told of a teenage immigrant who embodied the American dream of aspiring to become a pilot while working multiple jobs to pay for his flight training.

Three decades after arriving in Southern California, Zobayan was flying Kobe Bryant and a variety of other VIPs. Even in doing so, he continued to wash aircraft and vacuum offices even bringing lunches to coworkers on his days off. Friends said Zobayan was “cheerful and humble.” Colleagues described him as “exceptional,” “personable,” and “genuine.”  

The lawsuit argues Zobayan “failed to properly monitor and assess the weather prior to takeoff and failed to abort the flight when he knew of the cloudy conditions, failing to properly and safely operate the helicopter resulting in a crash.”

The NTSB’s findings seem to support many of those accusations with the report homing in on weather and on how Zobayan navigated it. On the morning of the crash, it was reported he texted a group of Kobe’s travel coordinators: “Weather looking OK.” But footage from cameras near the crash site showed low clouds and valleys cloaked in fog. Some experts interviewed say Zobayan never should have taken off. Others dub his decision a “judgment call.” But all agree that when treacherous conditions arose, Zobayan should have landed mid-flight. The NTSB said in their final findings that Zobayan was likely influenced to continue by ‘self-imposed pressure’ because he wanted to please his celebrity client.

The families of the crash victims have all filed similar lawsuits against Zobayan and Island Express. The spotlight on Ara Zobayan’s family has been particularly cruel said his good friend, Chuck Street. Within hours of the accident they had media people pounding on the door where Tess and Ara lived. Tess received threats as well. Island Express hired a security firm to protect her. To some Kobe fans, Zobayan had become a villain. And that crushed everybody who knew him.  “People want to demonize him now,” Street says, “but I think that’s unfortunate, because he was so very human.”

So, the next time you feel compelled to live up to someone’s ‘Mr. Pilot Man,’ accolade and expectations think about Ara Zobayan and his heartbreaking reversal of fortune.  Identify, then break a link in an early forming error chain before catastrophe strikes. Better to ‘land and live’ and fly another day.  

One of the nine hazardous attitudes I teach in my CRM course is invulnerability, the sense that ‘It can’t happen to me.’  The purpose of this article is to assure you that it most certainly can happen to you and if you are not careful you could suffer the same terrible fate and become a defendant in a lawsuit suing you and your estate for reparations. Yes, you too can go from ‘Mr. Pilot Man’ to defendant, or as one article put it: “from ‘Mr. Pilot Man’ to chief culprit,” which is even more reason not to push your luck by falling into the trap of dying to please the client or your passengers.

About Randy:
Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected].