The pilot was identified by colleagues as Ara Zobayan, 50, of Huntington Beach.
Federal Aviation Administration records show that Zobayan had been a licensed helicopter pilot since January 2001 and obtained a commercial helicopter license with an instrument rating in 2007, which allows pilots to fly in inclement weather by using their instruments and directions from air traffic control, rather than by eyesight, using visual flight rules, known as VFR.
Bryant regularly used the helicopter, owned by the charter service Island Express. Records show the aircraft had flown between John Wayne Airport and Camarillo Airport about two dozen times in the last two years.
Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Island Express, told The Times he flew Bryant from 2014 to 2016, almost always in the same chopper -- N72EX, "Two Echo X-ray." Bryant favored the model, which is preferred by celebrities for its comfortable interior and solid safety record, Deetz said. When Bryant retired from the NBA in 2016, he flew out of downtown Los Angeles in the same helicopter, wrapped in a gray-and-black paint scheme with his Mamba emblem on the side, Deetz said.
Deetz said 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 it for 10 years, logging more than 8,000 flight hours.
Audio recordings indicate Zobayan opted not to rely on his instruments. Deetz and other pilots interviewed for this article say that such a decision is not uncommon even on cloudy days, as long as they can see and track major roads on the ground.
"Using instruments, you're at the mercy of controllers and as busy as Los Angeles airspace is, you're likely to get routed all over the place," said Brian Beker, a longtime fixed-wing pilot who flew out of Santa Monica for years. "In L.A., it's a notorious headache."
Flight tracking records show Zobayan followed the helicopter's normal course up the Interstate 5 corridor through Orange County and southeast Los Angeles County. But he deviated from this traditional path, which turned west over the Santa Monica Mountains. The marine layer socked in the mountains.
If the weather was poor, Deetz said, Bryant's pilot would take one of two routes: over the Cahuenga Pass or continue up the freeway over the Los Angeles Zoo. When visibility was especially poor, he would fly over the zoo because it was at a lower elevation than the Cahuenga Pass.
Zobayan passed over the zoo Sunday morning, and requested to enter the controlled airspace around Burbank using "Special VFR" clearance because weather conditions had deteriorated to less than the minimum visibility for regular visual flying. At that point, pilots landing at Burbank and Van Nuys airports were required to fly using instruments. Zobayan was directed to "hold" while airport traffic cleared.