He was Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mr. Pilot Man.’ Now he’s blamed for Kobe’s death

Henry Bushnell and Jeff Eisenberg
·12-min read

The chopper touched down east of Los Angeles. Its rotor whirred to a halt. And on a mild afternoon three years ago, a rangy man in camo-print Nikes stepped out. Kobe Bryant chartered helicopters regularly in retirement. Nov. 22, 2018, was just another day in his charmed life.

Except that it was Thanksgiving.

And there was a crisis.

Someone in the Bryant family had forgotten the candied yams at home.

Rather than risk an incomplete feast, Kobe returned to the helicopter. Waiting for him was a pilot he trusted more than any other. A pilot who went to great lengths to meet Kobe’s every need. One who flew him back to Orange County that day; who stood by as Kobe hustled to his Newport Beach mansion; who flew him east once more with the candied yams in tow.

As Kobe increasingly turned to helicopter travel to evade LA traffic, he wouldn’t just fly with any pilot. Two were effectively blacklisted, one because the Bryants, in the words of their transportation coordinator, simply “didn’t care for him.” Only a few pilots were even approved to fly the Laker legend. And only one was ever requested.

Ara Zobayan, to Kobe, was "Mr. Pilot Man."

Over time, Zobayan became more than an air chauffeur. According to colleagues, he and Kobe interacted like friends. Zobayan’s work ethic and professionalism endeared him to the NBA icon. His warmth and positivity put Kobe at ease. On at least one occasion, they rode together in the helicopter’s cockpit. Out of respect for Kobe’s privacy, Zobayan rarely talked about their relationship. But it was clear to many that one existed.

“They were more than friendly,” says Chuck Street, Zobayan’s friend. "There was a mutual respect.”

And according to Patti Taylor of OC Helicopters, Kobe’s travel broker: “He trusted [Zobayan] with his girls and family, which was paramount to him."

So it was Zobayan, of course, who got the assignment on Jan. 26, 2020, when Kobe and his daughter Gianna flew to a youth basketball tournament. It was Zobayan, of course, who carried them and six others toward the Mamba Sports Academy, just as he had 24 hours earlier.

Now, one year later, it is Zobayan who is the main subject of an investigation into the fatal crash that day – and of a sweeping lawsuit, filed by Vanessa Bryant, that blames him for Kobe's and Gianna's deaths.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

From ‘Mr. Pilot Man’ to chief culprit

Thirteen days after the tragedy, with grief and shock still fresh, Zobayan’s friends and family gathered in secret. Hundreds convened, out of public view, at an airport hangar in Fullerton, California. They came to celebrate Zobayan’s life. And what a remarkable life it had been.

Tess Davidson, his longtime girlfriend, opened the service. Other speakers followed her lead. They told of a teenage immigrant who embodied the American dream. Who borrowed his seatmate’s helicopter magazine on the flight over from war-torn Lebanon. Who aspired to become a pilot, and worked multiple jobs to pay for flight lessons that would launch his career.

Three decades after arriving in Southern California with little more than a relative's address, Zobayan was flying Kobe and a variety of other VIPs. Even so, he continued to wash aircrafts and vacuum offices. He continued to bring lunch to coworkers on his days off. Friends say he was “cheerful and humble.” Colleagues described him as “exceptional,” “personable” and “genuine.”

"I don't know that he'd ever stop smiling when I talked to him," says Rob Sims, owner of the hangar venue.

"Ara was amazing," one emotional coworker said. "That's all."

Zobayan’s life, by all accounts, was one worth celebrating. And yet for two weeks, those close to him worried they couldn’t celebrate it. Davidson planned the memorial in part with a uniformed security guard outside her door. Sims enlisted an entire security team to surround the venue “in case the news people or some rowdy fans of Kobe tried to get in the middle of things.” Even still, the sight of a news van that day stirred nerves. When it rumbled past, and when a helicopter flyover concluded an uninterrupted ceremony, its officiant, Chuck Street, sighed with relief.

Zobayan’s family members, Street says, were “very, very nervous about the media showing up and spoiling everything.”

Because to the outside world, Zobayan wasn’t a loving partner or caring friend. He was the chief culprit in the fight over responsibility for Kobe’s death.

A view of the celebration of life for Ara Zobayan in Fullerton, California, in February. (Courtesy of Rob Sims)
A view of the celebration of life for Ara Zobayan in Fullerton, California, in February. (Courtesy of Rob Sims)

The fight over responsibility

Sixteen days later, the Bryants’ public memorial attracted 20,000 mourners to Staples Center. As they gathered, Vanessa Bryant’s attorneys filed the lawsuit. Its language was blunt and biting. Its accusations, now spelled out over 90 pages, are thorough and ruthless. Kobe, it claims, “was killed as a direct result of the negligent conduct of Zobayan.” Gianna too.

The pilot’s actions, it states, were “wanton, willful callous, reckless and depraved.”

Zobayan, it argues, “failed to properly monitor and assess the weather prior to takeoff” on that fateful January morning; “failed to abort the flight when he knew of the cloudy conditions; … and failed to properly and safely operate the helicopter resulting in a crash.”

Via a lawsuit filed by Vanessa Bryant
Via a lawsuit filed by Vanessa Bryant

And the National Transportation Safety Board, the governmental agency that started going through evidence 365 days ago?

Its findings, experts say, seem to support many of those accusations.

The NTSB has homed in on weather — and on how Zobayan navigated it. On the morning of the crash, he texted a group of Kobe’s travel coordinators: “Weather looking OK.” But footage from cameras near the crash site show low clouds and valleys cloaked in fog. Some experts who spoke with Yahoo Sports say Zobayan never should have taken off. Others dub that decision a “judgment call.” But all agree that, when treacherous conditions arose, Zobayan should have landed mid-flight.

“He should’ve landed at Van Nuys,” an airport in northwest LA, says Robert Ditchey, an aviation consultant. “Period.”

Instead, he flew onward, beneath the clouds. As he followed Highway 101 westbound, terrain began to rise, narrowing the gap between the ground and the clouds. At 9:44 a.m., the helicopter was roughly 300 feet above the ground. Around this time, with visibility low, Zobayan decided to climb – out of the haze, through and above the clouds, to safety. He pushed to 1,600 feet, to 1,800, to 2,000. “Climbing to four thousand,” he told air traffic control.

But as he reached 2,300 feet, he stopped climbing — and either started or continued turning. Then, he began accelerating toward earth. The NTSB has theorized that, while enveloped by clouds, Zobayan became “spatially disoriented” – that he lost his sense of up vs. down and left vs. right. Experts who spoke with Yahoo Sports, including a former NTSB investigator, believe Zobayan lost control of the aircraft. No other reason for his rapid descent into a hillside has been found.

Experts say it presents as a case of “pilot error.” In other words, it was likely Zobayan’s fault. If it was his fault, attorneys say, his estate could be liable; and Island Express Helicopters, his employer, will be “vicariously liable” for Kobe’s death.

Ara Zobayan, pictured in front of the Sikorsky helicopter he flew with Kobe Bryant and seven others on January 26, 2020. (Courtesy of Chuck Street)
Ara Zobayan, pictured in front of the Sikorsky helicopter he flew with Kobe Bryant and seven others on January 26, 2020. (Courtesy of Chuck Street)

Zobayan’s brother, in a response filed last May, argued that Kobe “knowing[ly] and voluntar[ily]” took on “the risks involved” with flying, “and that [his] negligence was a substantial factor in causing [his death], for which this answering defendant bears no responsibility.” But legal experts say this argument “will not fly.”

Island Express, for its part, has filed a cross-complaint against two air traffic controllers, and argued that their “erroneous acts and/or omissions” caused the accident. Vanessa’s attorneys have labeled this a “procedural ploy” to get the case moved to federal court. Experts are split on whether it has any merit.

“Everybody's throwing meatballs at everybody else in this thing,” says Ron Goldman, an experienced aviation attorney not involved in the case.

[Related: What went wrong in Kobe Bryant’s fateful helicopter flight?]

Vanessa’s lawsuit also names OC Helicopters as a defendant, because its owner “regularly discussed weather” with Zobayan, and helped plan the fatal flight. And the suit takes aim at Island Express not only for Zobayan’s faults, but also for the company’s “fail[ure] to have in place an adequate safety policy.” NTSB investigators have probed Island Express’s safety culture as well, and while most employees said it was strong, one former employee rated it a “two-and-a-half to three” out of 10; another employee suggested it “could be better.”

The upshot to all of this, experts say, is that Vanessa will likely win an “astronomical” amount of money for the loss of Kobe’s future earnings – or would, if Island Express and its insurance policy could pay such a sum. But “there's not enough money this side of kingdom come to pay the full amount of damages in this case,” Goldman says. Which is one reason he and other experts expect a settlement. The families of Alyssa Altobelli, John Altobelli and Keri Altobelli; Payton Chester and Sarah Chester; and Christina Mauser, the other crash victims, have all filed similar lawsuits. It would be up to all parties “to come to an agreement on allocation,” says Los Angeles-based attorney Ilyas Akbari, if they want to divvy up settlement money out of court.

The NTSB investigation, meanwhile, is nearing a conclusion. A public meeting is scheduled for Feb. 9 “to determine the probable cause” of the crash. Attorneys will be listening in with interest.

But the families of victims? People like Matt Mauser, Christina’s husband? Will they care about a finding of responsibility or blame?

“Nah. I just want it to be over. I want to move on with my life,” Mauser says. “That stuff just causes – I mean, it's not gonna change anything.”

Kobe Bryant's wife Vanessa Bryant arrives to speak during the "Celebration of Life for Kobe and Gianna Bryant" service at Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles on February 24, 2020. - Kobe Bryant, 41, and 13-year-old Gianna were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in the rugged hills west of Los Angeles on January 26. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
Vanessa Bryant arrives to speak during the "Celebration of Life for Kobe and Gianna Bryant" service at Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles on February 24, 2020. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Grief and empathy amid blame

“Grief,” Vanessa Bryant says, “is a messed up cluster of emotions. One day you’re in the moment laughing and the next day you don’t feel like being alive.” And in the days, weeks and months after the crash, grief stung victims’ families sharply. Matt Mauser sometimes struggled to bring himself to his feet. On his darkest day, he hid in a closet and clutched Christina’s dresses. A year later, he says, the pain is “still very real.”

Because of the tragedy’s public nature, triggering reminders were inescapable. Mauser would stumble upon them while scrolling social media or watching TV. Images of the crash scene, he says, “just set you back. It’s horrible.” On one hand, the thousands of supportive messages have helped. Media requests allow him to eulogize Christina and promote the foundation he started in her name. But sometimes, he and others just want to escape. Most family members of victims have chosen to mourn in private. Neither Zobayan’s girlfriend nor brother has spoken publicly. Of his many close friends, only one agreed to an interview for this story. That one, Chuck Street, says he keeps a picture of Zobayan in his office, and still thinks about his fellow pilot every day.

To Zobayan’s family, the spotlight has been particularly cruel. “Within hours of the accident, they had media people pounding on the door where Tess and Ara lived,” Street says. Tess, Zobayan’s partner, received threats as well. Island Express, his employer, hired the security to protect her. To some Kobe acolytes, Zobayan had become the villain. And that crushed everybody who knew Zobayan.

“People want to demonize him now,” Street says. “But I think that’s unfortunate, because he was so very human.”

For years, Vanessa Bryant saw that humanity. She, too, would cruise in choppers above LA. She was notoriously picky, churning through limo drivers, sometimes “just because she just didn't like them,” Island Express’ vice president Whitney Bagge told investigators.

But Ara?

“Vanessa loved Ara,” Bagge said. “And Kobe would even have Ara fly his girls by themselves. That's how much he trusted a pilot to just take his daughter to a basketball game.”

It’s unclear how Vanessa now feels about the man whom she’s suing for her husband’s and daughter’s deaths. The fierce legal sparring has created a superficial aura of acrimony. But perhaps the best window into Vanessa’s own humanity opened in the weeks immediately following the crash. She announced the creation of the MambaOnThree Fund. She asked for donations that would “help support the other families affected by this tragedy.” Matt Mauser confirms he received “a little bit of financial aid” from it. Zobayan’s name was also listed among the beneficiaries.

Davidson, Zobayan’s girlfriend, declined to comment through her attorney when asked if she has received any money from Vanessa Bryant.

But on that February Saturday, when friends and family gathered to honor Zobayan, Chuck Street says that a woman he didn’t recognize showed up at Fullerton Airport. “It was before the start of the formal program,” Street says. “It wasn’t done in public. It wasn’t like someone came up and took the microphone. This person came to me and said, ‘I’m representing Vanessa Bryant. Can you point me to Tess Davidson?’ ”

Street says he led her to Davidson. “I stood there as an envelope was handed over.” Inside, he says, was a check – “to help with funeral expenses.”

And the woman, Street says, told Davidson: “Vanessa sends her condolences.”