Island Express Helicopters suspends flights to Catalina in wake of Kobe Bryant crash

Long Beach-based Island Express Helicopters has suspended its service to Catalina in the wake of a helicopter crash in Calabasas on Sunday that killed former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and eight others, including the company’s head pilot.

Island Express owned the chopper, a twin-engine Sikorsky S-76, that was carrying Bryant, his 13-year-old  daughter Gianna and seven other passengers to a youth basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks when it crashed on a hillside in foggy weather.

The cause is under investigation, but some aviation experts have speculated that the pilot, Ara Zobayan, may have become  disoriented in the fog.

In a statement on its website, Island Express said Zobayan, the chief pilot, had been with the company for a decade and had logged more than 8,000 flight hours.

Island Express was founded in Long Beach in 1982 and is the only tour company offering scheduled helicopter flights to Catalina. The company offers services from its heliport near the Queen Mary and in San Pedro. The choppers land at the Pebbly Beach heliport near the city of Avalon.

Catalina Island Company spokesperson Kristin Metcalfe confirmed that the company was not flying to the island Wednesday. An employee for Island Express said the company on Wednesday suspended its service and it is not clear when operations will resume.

The company was previously owned by John Moore, and is currently owned by Island Express Holding Corp.

The company in its statement said it is deeply saddened by the tragedy and is working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate the cause of the accident.

In May 2008, Island Express saw another fatal crash when its Eurocopter AS-350 took off from Long Beach and went down near the Banning House Lodge at Two Harbors.

The crash killed the company’s pilot, Emeric Maillet, employee John Terry, and Tania Hurd, a school teacher from Burbank. Three others were injured.

Federal officials determined that the crash was likely caused by a turbine blade fatigue fracture after investigators found evidence of fatigue cracking during an examination of four fractured turbine blades.

Witnesses had heard a pop and saw flames shoot out the rear of the engine as the helicopter neared the island.

A family member of John Terry later filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Island Express and Honeywell International, which manufactured the engine. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Editors Note: This article was changed to reflect that John Moore is no longer the owner of Island Express. 

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Kelly Puente is a general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. Her prolific reporting has taken her all over Southern California—even to the small Catalina Island town of Two Harbors. She is a Tiki mug collector and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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